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Seeding Resiliency: Dakota Farming in Canada

Written by Hañwakañ Blaikie Whitecloud.

Farming is a skill that my Dakota ancestors-- particularly my great-great-grandfather Mahpiyaska, which translates to ‘Whitecloud’ in English-- picked up quickly. In 1851, after securing treaties with the United States that recognized their rights to their own territory, some Dakota in Minnesota were trained in farming by US government teachers to have them settle on reserves. The Dakota had access to oxen, ploughs, scythes, wagons, grain cradles, and they managed cattle, milk cows, draught and riding horses, sheep, poultry, and hogs. After a season of poor farming conditions and no aid of rations as promised in their treaties, the Dakota population was decimated, initially through starvation and then through a quickly-quashed rebellion over the betrayal of their treaty rights. The US Government’s response was the largest mass execution in North America’s history, known as the ‘Dakota 38+2’, which took place on December 26, 1862 in Mankato, MN.

After the massacre, my ancestor, Mahpiyaska, evaded any further hostilities by returning to southern Manitoba, the northernmost part of Dakota territory, and began farming on his own.

Like many other Dakota were at the time, Mahpiyaska was fearful of the Americans coming over the border to hunt them out of vengeance. In a later conversation with Canadian country music legend Errol Ranville, he vividly remembers his father and forebearers being afraid of American assassination. These fears were not unfounded: the meaning of the “+2” in the ‘Dakota 38+2’ reflected a Canadian tie to the massacre: after the Dakota 38, the Americans were successful in crossing the border into Canada and seeking out two Dakota chiefs who had come up seeking refuge. The chiefs were drugged with opium and chloroform, tied to a sled, dragged back across the border eventually back to Fort Snelling in Minnesota where they were hanged.

Immigrant Indians and Broken Promises

Because Dakota territory spanned both the US and Canada, Mahpiyaska and the rest of the Dakota that came back to Canada became labelled as ‘immigrant’ or ‘alien’ Indians. (I use the term ‘Indian’ throughout this article as I am referencing legal structures which continue to use that word. If folks are looking to discuss issues relating to Indigenous peoples in Canada they should use the term Indigenous except when discussing the Indian Act or its implications. ‘Indigenous’ was a word chosen by a global consortium of Indigenous leadership in the Development of the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Today, I am an Indigenous person, a Canadian, a taxpayer and I have Indian Status.)

But, back to my ancestors: Their presence was tolerated by the Canadian government of the day due to their respectful nature; this tolerance was further solidified by the Dakota’s allyship with the Canadian military. Many Dakota received medals and promises to protect their rights for their participation in repelling the American army during the War of 1812. In fact, Canada only maintained its independence from the US through alliances with First Nations including the Dakota. This didn’t work out in the Dakota’s favour: in the map below, we see that in the negotiations of 1818 Canada ceded most of the Dakota's southern territory to the US.

Dakota Farming in MB - Success, Intervention and Exclusion

Once in Manitoba, Mahpiyaska was able to arrange himself a tract of land to which he could apply his farming skills. Incoming settlers to Canada were given large tracts of land for free if they could farm the land in a way that could sustain themselves. Mahpiyaska is one of the only First Nations people I have heard of that took advantage of a largely settler-only homesteading opportunity for himself. It is unclear if his ‘immigrant’ Indian status is what allowed for this.

Mahpiyaska quickly became a successful farmer, quickly surpassing self-sufficient farming to commercial farming. Mahpiyaska and the other Dakota farmers were entirely responsible for their own financial affairs, purchasing machinery and implements with their income. During this time, the Canadian federal government created a new system to empower Indian Agents-- the arbiters of all activities on reserves-- to restrict the movements of all the Indians under their domain. The Indian Act forced Mahpiyaska to move away from his homestead to live on reserve, but he maintained his farming activities at his homestead with frequent travel. This new system also only allowed Indians to leave the newly created reserves including the Oak River Indian Reserve (today known as Sioux Valley Dakota Nation) if they were able to convince their Indian Agent to grant them a leave from the reserve, in what became known as ‘the pass system’.

Despite being confined to the reserve, Mahpiyaska thrived in his new homeland while remotely retaining use of his old farmland. Once again, he was able to flourish through his farming exploits. Mahpiyaska’s success should have been a win for the Department of Indian Affairs, the Canadian Public, and the Dakota at the Oak River Indian Reserve, but instead was perceived as a threat by the Department of Indian Affairs. The Dakota were not conforming to the agricultural policy of the Department, which was to encourage subsistence level farming among Indians, in which they produced for their own needs only, and not for the market.

For over ten years, the Dakota who were farming in southern Manitoba managed their own financial affairs and had been independent of government assistance due to their successful farming operations. Beginning in 1880 amendments to the Indian Act began to outlaw using machinery, managing cash flow - their income began to be seized by the Indian Agent, and government officials began convicting and fining local Manitobans who wanted to buy products from the Dakota. This harmed Mahpiyaska’s client base as well as his business. Mahpiyaska and two others travelled to Ottawa to make a grievance about the injustices they were facing, but when they got there they were chastised for leaving the reserve but were told an investigation into the new Indian Act farming laws would take place.

The investigation eventually condoned the pass system and the continued ‘apprehension’ of monies earned through farming. The investigation also found that Mahpiyaska and the two other men were the most successful farmers on the reserve: cumulatively, they had increased their farms’ output by almost tenfold and had no outstanding debts, other than for items and supplies that were being used to increase the capacity and efficiency of their operations. Still, the investigation report did nothing to help their situation.

During this time, Mahpiyaska and others did their best to squeeze through the restrictions by continuing to work their farms and sell their products illegally-- however not as successfully as they would have, had they been allowed to farm peacefully. Mahpiyaska openly broke the rules, but would not betray the other farmers he had been in commerce with. The authorities became so keen on watching and ensuring that Mahpiyaska did not break any rules or laws, that he began giving away his grain for free. Eventually, this slowed his production, all economic motivations having been eliminated.

Treatyless Indians and the Future

Because they were not regarded as having Indigenous land rights in Canada due to their ‘alien’ status, the Dakota were not included during the creation of the numbered treaties. However, recently, they were asked by the Canadian Federal government to extinguish any potential rights via a payout of $60.3 million dollars in 2007. The Dakota refused, since that sum, when divided amongst the 5000 Dakotas living in Canada, amounted to only $12,000 per person. Ultimately, the Dakota wanted recognition of their Indigenous rights in Canada in the form of a treaty. By gaining treaty status, they could potentially have sought more land and greater economic opportunities.The Dakota continue looking for a way to establish themselves permanently in Canada where they can be on an equal plane with other Canadian First Nations and their Canadian neighbours.

Some Dakota are succeeding despite the injustices their families have faced. My mother was shocked to hear the phrase ‘Your kind aren’t welcome around here’ when, as a young girl, she went to get ice cream from a small town near Sioux Valley in southern Manitoba with her dad. Her dad wasn’t fazed; he had been a veteran of WW2 and later experienced racist barriers in accessing his veteran rights. Our familial determination to succeed in spite of injustice spurred my mother to become the first high school graduate, university graduate, and law school graduate in her community. The more I learn of my history while continuing to experience oppression, the more imbued with anger I become. I believe that if properly channeled, that anger is the fuel needed to succeed in this unjust society we call Canada-- even though ultimately, I wish it could transform it.


Author: Hanwakan Blaikie Whitecloud

Hanwakan is a Dakota digital story teller, documentary filmmaker, and business development consultant who is passionate about skateboarding and living a healthy lifestyle.

Find him on social media @hbwhitecloud


Image References Image 1 - Wikimedia Commons, artist J. Thullen Image 2 - Wikimedia Commons, United States Department of the Interior

Image 3 - Archives of Manitoba Image 4 - Public Archives of Canada Image 5 - Public Archives of Canada

For further reading see: Manitoba History: Agriculture and Agitation on the Oak River Dakota Reserve, 1875-1895 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


Interested in sharing your own story or idea about food in Manitoba through Fireweed's blog? Get in touch! We are always looking for great guest bloggers.


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