The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 27, 2013

Dakota games show their culture

By Brian Ojanpa
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — Broken treaties were the obvious crux of the U.S.-Dakota war of 1862.

But the not-so-obvious nuances of Dakota angst rested with their cultural mores, evidenced even in the games they played.

Mike Wilson, an Ojibwe, on Saturday presented an interactive workshop at the Treaty Site History Center in St. Peter that explored how Indian games may have affected individual decisions to participate in the war.

“Any game, from anywhere, has cultural values encoded in them,” he said before demonstrating such Indian pastimes as the moccasin game.

He said many Indian tribes played a form of this game, which originated as a means of avoiding inter-tribal bloodshed.

“If two tribes wanted to hunt in the same game area, they played the game rather than fight about it. Whoever lost, left, and whoever won, stayed.”

The game is similar to a shell game and involves guessing as to which moccasin is hiding a small object. As rounds are won and lost, designated numbers of sticks change hands.

Wilson said the cultural essence of the game involves its “community resources” — the sticks. If a player is in danger of losing, his opponent gives him enough sticks to keep playing at that point.

That community-resource value inherent in the game had a corollary to the Dakota plight, Wilson said.

“In real simple terms, when whites came to Minnesota they were in a bad situation, and the Dakota gave freely to them with their resources, because in Dakota culture it’s an obligation to help. It’s shameful not to.”

But when the tables were turned and the Dakota were hurting, whites’ help wasn’t reciprocated.

“That was problematic for the Dakota because these (white) families they’d helped out in the beginning now had everything.”

Wilson said the goal of his presentations is to give attendees a deeper understanding of the cultural values that informed the actions taken in 1862.