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New history seeks to counteract heritage

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North Country

The Making of Minnesota

By Mary Lethert Wingerd

University of Minnesota Press, 449 pages, US $35

This handsome and ambitious effort is history with a difference.

Its Minnesotan author, Mary Lethert Wingerd, was once offended by a celebration of her state's centennial she found phoney. The celebration, she believed, revealed heritage, not history.

So she has devoted many years to writing a "new history."

With it she explores what is sometimes referred to as "pre history." This includes history of the native peoples, the generations of occupants before the takeover by Europeans and Euro-centred populations.

The difference between heritage and history is profound and important, Wingerd declares. Heritage, she states, "is crafted to affirm what we wish to be true about ourselves." History, on the other hand, "strives (albeit imperfectly) to discover the truth about the past."

A history professor at St. Cloud State University, Wingerd argues that Minnesotans' knowledge of their own history is, at best, incomplete.

North Country is her effort at leading a team to give a true version of a shared history, embracing French, English, Dakota, Ojibwa, Métis and, ultimately, Americans.

The people most neglected in what passed for history, the popular history celebrated on the centennial of 1958 and other such occasions, were the native peoples.

As Wingerd observes, "Native people were no more [considered] a part of the making of Minnesota than squirrels hawking beer (Hamm's) or the apocryphal folk tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox."

The 141 plates represent a kind of picture book within the text. Many show extraordinary works of art. Others are clever maps and diagrams, often with attached materials. The use of colour is as notable as the ancient photographs. This history text is itself a work of art.

For Canadian readers, one of the more interesting sections describes the distinctive development of Métis culture. Wingerd is sure handed in describing the Red River Colony, and the nature and status of the "mixed bloods."

She is evidently interested in Pembina, that settlement/trading post perched at what is now the Manitoba-North Dakota border.

Parallels between the Canadian story and the American one are striking, but not surprising. In both cases Euro-centred peoples displaced the traditional occupants, using an essentially similar combination of duplicity and force.

In both cases the native occupants were sidelined by a population that overwhelmingly outnumbered them..

What is particular to the history of Minnesota is what Wingerd terms Minnesota's "civil war." Coinciding with the early part of the American Civil War, the struggle between the Dakota [Sioux] and the incoming "Americans" -- actually waves of whites, many direct from Europe -- erupted in 1862.

Wingerd spares no detail in describing the conflict. Innocent people (many who, in another war, could be called civilians) died. Outcomes of the bloody fighting included the forcible confinement on reservations of Dakotas, at least of those not executed or jailed after hasty and often unjust trials.

Years would pass, she explains, before the heritage of Hiawatha obscured the reality of the clash of cultures in which the more powerful triumphed and advanced its version of the story.

However, as Wingerd makes clear, she believes the writing of the "new history" (and by definition, more accurate history) has really just begun.

Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2010 H9

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