Reading Through Dakota Eyes: Woolworth Interview

An interview with Alan Woolworth on the development of  Through Dakota Eyes: Narrative Accounts of the Minnesota Dakota War of 1862, edited by Gary Clayton Anderson and Alan R. Woolworth (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1988). In February, 2012, Alan re-read our interview and I thank him for permission to reproduce it here.


Over the course of my research on the U.S. Dakota War of 1862, I have consulted Through Dakota Eyes and the manuscripts from which it was drawn. By 2004, I was curious about the development of the book and realized that with Alan Woolworth’s full retirement on the horizon, I should not assume I’d have a future opportunity to discuss it with him. Alan agreed to an interview and we sat down in his office at the Minnesota Historical Society (MHS) History Center in St. Paul, Minnesota on February 18, 2005.

In preparation for the interview, I read the transcript of Alan’s interview with Rhoda Gilman, part of the Minnesota Historical Society’s ongoing institutional Oral History Project, and drafted a series of questions on the development of Through Dakota Eyes. That morning, Alan spoke from notes he had written for our meeting. As Rhoda had done with the earlier interview, I let Alan guide the conversation and only interrupted to ask for clarification, or to ask a related question of my own. I took extensive notes and began composing the following summary of our interview an hour after we finished. The interview lasted 60 minutes.

Alan read and approved my written account of the interview in 2005, and again in a letter dated February 10, 2012, granting permission to post the my interview notes on the web.

Alan opened the interview by talking about our mutual friend, Walt Bachman, who Alan had referred to me in 2003 because of the overlap in my work on the federal administration of the Sioux Agency in Minnesota, and Bachman’s work on Joseph Godfrey and the  military tribunal trials of Dakotas accused of participating in the 1862 war.

Then Alan turned the conversation to Through Dakota Eyes (TDE). When we set up this interview Alan had mentioned some notes he’d made from an earlier presentation on TDE to a church group at Mary Bakeman’s request. Alan is still looking for that speech and also referred me to his original proposal, which he said I should look up in his papers at MHS. [I later found a copy in the Publications files in the MHS Institutional Archives collection.] This is the story Alan told me of how TDE developed.

June Holmquist was the director of publications at the time Alan was made Research Fellow at MHS in November, 1979. Her pet project was a compilation of Minnesota biographies she thought MHS should publish. Holmquist asked staff members to research and write two biographies per week for 12-18 months, on top of their regular workload. Alan’s slice of the biographical pie contained Dakota fur traders, mixed bloods, and full bloods. The fruits of Alan’s labor were:  a binder of biographical sketches Alan had earlier dropped off at my house to copy for my own collection; a related set of 3 x 5 cards in the History Center Library which are condensed versions of the same information; and supporting research files in Alan’s papers. Just about the time Alan finished his biographies, MHS quashed the idea of publishing the project.

Alan’s research method was to glean and photocopy from printed, manuscript and microfilmed sources in the MHS Library. Alan said he never set out to do research on any particular individual, but rather copied everything he found which commented on a Dakota, a mixed-blood, or a trader. Alan set up a file on each person and when he’d accumulated about a half inch of paper on one person, he wrote that individual’s biography. Alan said that anything he’d not specifically footnoted in one of the written biographies should trace back to a photocopy in that person’s file in his papers.

Through Dakota Eyes had its roots in that biographies project. Earlier, Ken Carley published several Dakota oral histories. [As Red Men Viewed It, Minnesota History 38, September 1962.] Alan laughed when he observed that Carley always made a point about how rare such accounts were. Alan didn’t think they were rare; he’d come across about two dozen of them just putting together his biographies. Alan mentioned this fact casually to someone at the MHS Press and they encouraged him to submit a book proposal. He did and was pleasantly surprised when they wanted to do the project. Alan then spent another month or two digging around and came up with a little over 50 accounts of the 1862 War attributed to Dakota narrators.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press brought Gary Clayton Anderson in on Through Dakota Eyes (TDE) for his editorial experience. [Anderson had previously published Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux (1986) with MHS Press.] Alan had known Anderson for quite a while already. Anderson added another dozen or so Dakota accounts he had found, bringing the total to the 63 published in Through Dakota Eyes (TDE). Anderson was teaching at Texas A & M University at the time, but Alan had a Watts line so they spent a lot of time on the phone conferring and sent written work back and forth through the mail. Anderson also had family in the Twin Cities so he and Alan met to go over material several times as the project developed.

I asked who wrote which parts of the book. Alan said he wrote most of the biographical introductions; MHS Press editor Sally Rubinstein wrote others from Alan’s notes. It was also Alan’s job to find pictures of the narrators. Anderson wrote the majority of the Introduction, and the chapter introductions.

Alan’s driving impulse for Through Dakota Eyes was the fact that even those Dakota narratives that were known had been neglected by white historians, which he called “an atrocity — an abomination” because, in Alan’s opinion, the narrators’ ethnicity was the reason their stories had been ignored. Alan said “oral traditions have their value. I’d still take something that had been written down, the earlier the better.” However, Alan felt white historians had slighted even early-recorded oral narratives, simply because they were from Dakotas.

Next, I asked Alan about revising Through Dakota Eyes (TDE) someday. If it was done, what would he like to see happen? Alan said it needed to be updated and corrected along the lines of what the Press had done when, at his insistence, they fixed the George Crooks account.

“They did?” I asked. “My copy at home (black cover) isn’t the most recent edition. I didn’t realize they’d updated it.”

Alan’s desk copy of TDE was the same as mine. So he got up and began fishing through his office cupboard for a newer edition. While he did, I asked, “Did the Press just change the citation or did they run both the Enterprise story and Crook’s refutation?”

“Oh, they printed them both,” he said. “I told them that was the only right thing to do. It would be so instructive for readers to see both so they can keep in mind that things like this [the refutation of a previously accepted source] might be out there.”

Alan emerged from his cupboard with two copies of the latest version of TDE (blue cover) and handed one to me. We both began flipping to the Crooks account. On the way, I looked at the publication page and thought it did not indicate it was a revised edition. The Crooks account in the newer edition looked identical to my copy at home: same narrative, same notes. Then I opened Alan’s desk copy (black cover) to compare and found it identical. I didn’t say anything, wondering what he’d say.

“It isn’t here. How could it not be here?” Alan said. “Where else [in the book] would they have put it? This must not be the most recent edition.”

Alan next looked next door in the Press library and didn’t find a revised edition there either. Alan promised he’d seen an updated version and would find a copy of the most recent printing and get back to me.

[He later did. The revisions at the 5th imprint altered the introduction to Crook’s story on p. 261, and removed the photo of Crooks from p. 262 to make space for an excerpt from his refutation, and contains a reference on the publication page noting the revision. The blue cover remained the same.]

Since we were talking about revisions, I brought up the Joseph Blacksmith information in Good Star Woman’s biography in TDE. “I read your biographical file on Blacksmith [for the Minnesota Biographies project] and found it so interesting that by the time Good Star Woman talked to Densmore, the family had forgotten Blacksmith had been tried and imprisoned for participation in the Uprising.”

“They did?” Alan asked, seeming genuinely surprised. He flipped to Good Star Woman’s narrative in TDE and skimmed the biographical introduction. [Echoing the narrative on p. 263, the Introduction on p. 36 places Good Star Woman’s father among the Dakotas interned at Fort Snelling.] “They sure did,” he said shaking his head. “I guess that tells us something about human memory doesn’t it. We remember the good times, the happy times. The bad just slides away.”

Alan sounded tired so I wrapped up our interview. On my way out, Alan brought up my then-upcoming trip to Philadelphia to review Ella Deloria’s papers in the Franz Boas collection at the American Philosophical Society. Alan said, “It is really ridiculous that you have to go all the way out there to read translations of [Dakota language] originals MHS owns. That stuff has been sitting here for decades and nobody knows what it says.”

Alan told me he knew Ella Deloria. They both grew up in South Dakota and had many mutual friends. They were in Washington D.C. for a hearing on a Yankton Dakota claims case. Afterward, the law firm representing the Yanktons took Alan and Deloria out for dinner.

“Somehow,” Alan reminisced, “she got so she was standing behind me and I said, in jest, ‘Ella, I am not one damn bit afraid of you. I don’t have enough hair to make a good scalp.’ Then she began running her fingers through my thinning locks and said,

‘Well, we’d have to do a careful job of it. But I think we could get a scalp here.’”

Alan smiled as he remembered. “Ella and I both laughed. The eastern attorneys were shocked at our levity.”

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5 Responses to Reading Through Dakota Eyes: Woolworth Interview

  1. Oecetiduta says:

    Its a shame that Dakota people are not recognized and given the opportunities to publish their own histories. Only Euro-American historians are given the jobs, resource’s and $ to research and publish. When a Dakota writes a book ,it will be called “From Dakota Eyes”. Sincerely, Oecetiduta

    • Carrie says:

      Sounds to me like you have wonderful idea for a Legacy Grant proposal: to fund the research, writing and production of “From Dakota Eyes.”:). One of my purposes in publishing the interview with Alan is to help users understand the methodology that went into the book. A project like this would never be done this way today. And it means the book has some serious flaws. Like the way the stories were edited to fit into topical divisions, a reader cannot even by skipping from section to section, read a narrator’s entire story because parts were omitted if the editors judged they did not “fit.” A classic example of this is the omission of the opening section of George Quinn’s account in which he dated Little Crow’s loss of the speaker election in 1862 to just days before the war. Yet in the 1980’s, when the book went to print, the editors believed Little Crow’s defeat had happened much earlier in the summer so they skipped including that part of Quinn’s story. For other narrators, like Cecilia Campbell Stay, a reader would not know without reading the notes that the editors pieced together sections from more than one of her manuscripts, which significantly changes the story as she told it. Other stories were included that are now known to be fictional, but in the 1980’s apparently sounded “authentic” and were not vetted. So I really do think it is high time it was replaced. You are also very well placed to help make a project like that happen. So I hope you will consider it! –Carrie

      • Oecetiduta says:

        Thank you for the positive feedback. How do I apply. Oecetiduta

      • Carrie says:

        Here’s the website: This program is administered by the Minnesota Historical Society on behalf of the State of Minnesota. The grants office staff is very helpful in the preliminary planning stages; they can help you shape your proposal into a form likely to be competitive. They can also offer advice on staging the project: say requesting a single larger grant versus a series of smaller grants tied to each phase of a larger project. I have worked with them now on two grants made to the Pond Dakota Heritage Society and have found the office staff to be very helpful.If they suggest getting outside evaluations of the proposed project to support the application, I’d be very happy to look at it!

  2. Annette T Ennis says:

    Exploring the omissions and getting it right is the final goal. One day it can truly be “From Dakota Eyes”

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