Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The War in Words: Reading the Dakota Conflict through the Captivity Literature
By Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, May 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8032-1370-8, 2009, $60. 398 pages.
Review by Wendy Lucas Castro, University of Central Arkansas
In The War in Words, Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola uses twenty-four captivity narratives in what she describes as “part literary history, part textual analysis, part historiography, and part cultural contextualization” (1) to examine the Dakota War of 1862. Not only does she utilize these narratives to discuss a single war, an innovative approach which could easily be used to study other Euro-Indian wars; Derounian-Stodola also draws on Anglo, German, and Indian (including mixed-blood) narratives who were either eyewitnesses or participants. These narratives are supplemented with biographical and archival evidence, including unpublished letters and coverage of the war in local newspapers to supplement details from the narratives and use them to corroborate each other’s memories. What these accounts reveal is a deeply divided community. Dakotas were split on whether to participate in the war or support friends and white relatives who lived in the area. Anglos characterized the Dakota involved as both evil murderers and benevolent saviors who kept them from being harmed by others. Interestingly, some of these Anglo captives understood that whites had been partly responsible for the violence, and attributed hunger and the Civil War as contributing factors as well. Germans tended to blame both Indians and Anglos, taking the opportunity in their narratives to lash out against both groups.
Mindful of the captivity genre, some of the most compelling moments are when Derounian-Stodola analyzes deviations from the standard captivity narrative, as these moments often reveal personal insights the author had tried to veil in the safety of the narratives’ formulaic nature. By bringing together a variety of voices—Anglo, German, and Indian—and broadening captivity to include Indians captured by other Indians, as well as Indians who were cultural captives to Christianity and physically confined captives in the aftermath of the violence, we get a truer sense of what this war meant to the individuals who experienced it and to the community that tried to make sense of it after the war was over. The result is an impressive reconstruction not only of the war, but of how these individuals (taking into account gender, race, and class) remembered and interpreted this experience. A chronology and summary paragraph on each of the captivity narratives used are particularly helpful, as is the division of the book into white and Indian narratives. Everyone teaching the Dakota War or captivity narratives, or seeking a cultural lens into a microcosm of nineteenth-century Indian Wars, will find this an essential addition to their library. Historians will wish for more regard for the causes, effects, and details of the war itself, but as this is not the author’s purpose it should not be considered a weakness. Rather, Kathryn Zabelle Derounian-Stodola has given us an interesting and effective way to think about this complicated moment in Minnesota history—a moment many groups are still struggling to come to terms with.