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August 11, 2022

2/21/2013 11:08:00 AM
Explaining the 'less neat and tidy side of history'
Bruce White
Bruce White

The map that accompanies the Treaty of 1825 shows a diagonal line across central Minnesota at about St. Cloud...following an angle southeast below Cambridge, past the lower corner of Chisago County, stopping at the St. Croix River north of Stillwater.

This line was the recognized boundary between Dakota and Ojibwe peoples and, on paper anyway, it meant that Chisago County was Ojibwe land. But as dedicated researchers and historians delve into more detail, stretching their frame of reference it is becoming accepted that Chisago County wasn’t so much considered a defined area as it was a melting pot.

The St. Croix River served as a highway for very early people and connected cultures much more than it divided them-- even though that’s what the map maker might say. Chisago county’s central location was a place of intermingling by those prone to settle down and people of nomadic lifestyles. That 1825 treaty page is a preserved remnant of a time when all kinds of lines were being drawn in the new America. Going as far back as crude diagrams sketched by French fur traders in the 1600s; the need to delineate and have a written record was strong. And, there are people who have made it their life’s work to study and interpret bodies of knowledge defined wholly by these lines. Thankfully, there are others; like Bruce White who have gone out of their way to try to explain the less neat and tidy side of history.

White’s book Mni Sota Makoce or Land of the Dakota was highlighted in a local presentation he gave recently. He has also published We Are at Home (heavy on historic photos) and Making Minnesota Territory, a book of essays. Chisago County as we know it now was a crossover land appreciated by tribal units that came for hunting and commerce, eventually inter-marrying blurring the lines and resulting in new alliances and connections between cultures and later, between races. White likes to show a slide of a drawing found while researching a treaty-drafting confab, at St. Croix Falls, that shows a primitive game resembling lacrosse, with treaty negotiators connecting through sport. White grew up spending summers on a farmstead north of Taylors Falls. His father was in the foreign service and so the family moved around the globe. Their summer place near Wild Mountain was the only property his dad ever outright purchased, White said. The family still owns the land.

So, maybe it was not having one single place to call home that led to White’s choice to focus on native peoples’ connections...go beyond the accepted historic but artificial confines. His mother Helen McCann White also was a historian. The genes were in place for Bruce to earn a phD in anthropology and a masters in history. (Helen eventually came to literally call Taylors Falls home, developing a reputation as a rescuer of old buildings in town.) Bruce White recalls a summertime friend from the farm next door telling him about Ojibwe cousins as a kid. White came to know the son of an early photographer who made the family’s precious personal portfolios available for White to research. He put names to faces and enjoyed tracking down the people in the photos or their relatives.

A dissertation for his masters degree became the book, We Are at Home. One favorite lesson he imparts, when giving his book talks, was learned meeting with a native woman who he located about 60 years after her photo was taken. White had noticed what looked like a skin affliction on her hands in the black and white photograph. When he finally broached the subject, she said she’d been baking bread the day the photo was taken and didn’t wash the dough off her hands. “You can never assume to know the circumstances and you shouldn’t read too much into a photograph,” White advises all budding historians.

FYI...You can reach White at Turnstone Historical Research in St. Paul or e mail white067@umn.edu. His books are all available through the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

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