Ite Maza Speaks

I’m rounding up primary sources for my daughter’s sixth grade history teacher to supplement Northern Lights: The Stories of Minnesota’s Past (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2003). Sixth grade isn’t exactly the coolest time to be proud of your mom, except when she just wrote a book about the next topic in your history book :).

My choices for supplementary primary sources on the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 (Chapter 9 in Northern Lights) are not texts written for sixth graders, although I hope they find them accessible. Rather, I’ve chosen texts that nuance the story we’ve all inherited.

First up, the oldest recorded text on my list: a rumination on the choice some Dakota people made to give up the hunting and gathering life ways of their ancestors, and to take up Euro-American-style subsistence agriculture. In sixth grade terms: Why would some Dakota choose to turn from hunting to farming to feed their families?

What does the decision of some Dakota people to become farmers have to do with the Dakota War? Farmers were among the leaders of the Dakota opposition movement known as the Peace Party. As I develop from their recollections of the war in my introduction to A Thrilling Narrative, the Dakota farmers who actively opposed the war were also fighting for Mni Sota Makoce.

Ite Maza (Ee-tay Ma-za), whose English name was Jack Frazier, was not a member of the Peace Coalition. He was not on scene, having escaped with his wife from his home at the Lower Sioux Agency, where he working as a trader’s clerk, to Fort Ridgely the afternoon of August 18. Even so, his words are important because they are among the earliest extant speeches written in the Dakota language (recorded c. 1839) and reflect his thinking at the time he was leaving traditional ways of subsistence.

One hundred years later, Dakota linguist Ella Cara Deloria traveled to the Minnesota Historical Society where she copied several hundred pages of Dakota language material from the Riggs and the Pond Papers. She later translated it for Franz Boas, whose papers, including Deloria’s translations, came to rest in the archives of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia where I copied them in 2005.


“In the long ago, there was desperation; and so men pitiably attempted to make life possible; and behold they saw that whatever they pierced with… arrowheads of bone and stone died; and so they did not let go of [making] them. But in those times, the beasts that walked the earth were very plentiful; in those times beavers in hordes filled all the bodies of water wherever water lay; consequently, life was possible; they kept alive.

Today, even if someone tried to live in that way, he would fail, he could not live, and he would meet with hardship…. [N]ow man can live now only from working the soil, planting; aside from that there is nothing possible to live by. Now then, that is the way it is; nothing exists beyond and better; that is all. He who honors the soil, thereby makes a man of himself to a far greater degree….

But you say, “Who in the world would follow the way of the Big Knives, and achieve anything thereby!” This you are wont to say; and all white men, Big Knives (Americans) and all, are not wise, you are wont to say; and they are foolish, as grown up as they are, yet childishly they gather firewood and plant gardens, and labor like women, you say, and you ridicule them. But, O Pshaw! That rather is not right; you yourselves are the greater fools! In that you depend only on the women, and you consider the white men’s and Big Knives’ customs as ridiculous….

Yet when they meet you they think, “Ah, poor thing, I guess I’ll give him some food.” But then when you come outside again, having filled up your bellies, you give some shouts; but if there was any sense in you, you would look about you, and if you did, you would observe some beings very huge, and in that case, you might say, “These things are cattle…[c]ome on all, someone shoot one dead, that we may eat it!”

It is your Dakota way, that all you can do is wish for the killing of things. That is the one thing you do naturally, as you grow up; you have wisdom for that. Why shouldn’t you be like that? Your forebears grow up in that same way. All things take after their parents that is why you are as you are.

Take the beasts of the field, they also grow as they do, the mother, eating grass, is seen doing it by the young, and that is what he comes to take for granted. And because he grows up like his parent, he pins his faith on the thought, “Only by means of grass can I live.” And he does not put his trust in anything beyond that. He grows up with his eyes turned to the ground, yet he, though an animal, lives well…. It would seem he has made gardens all over the earth, for he lives suffering for the lack of nothing. But when he must suffer, he does suffer. The earth is very possibly undergoing change. It is alarming. Now in turn, all the grass is withering away; and so, though it once seemed that the beasts of the field had great gardens all over, when the snow covers all, then they suffer.

Now, therefore, men living on earth can only practice labor; and urge themselves on to activity. Naturally! It is because labor is the only means of subsistence, that all wise men place planting at the highest value…. Such things that are conducive to maintaining life, you hold as of value; and you speak disparagingly of [planting]; and you make it sound very hard. Obviously you have no intention of working, that is why you call it bad. But no, there comes a time when you do like what comes out of the ground –and that is when it is cooked!

For a while, first, as a beginning, just on purpose, because I am not pleased with the deeds of my people the Dakotas, I have said words about them, but that is all I shall say….”

Excerpts from “Miscellany” by Joseph Frazier as recorded in Dakota by Samuel and Gideon Pond c. 1839, free translation by Ella Cara Deloria in “Texts from the Minnesota Manuscripts.” Franz Boas Papers. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia. Transcribed by Carrie Reber Zeman, 2009. Paragraphing added. (Soft brackets) are Deloria’s; [hard brackets] are mine.

Sources on Joseph (Jack) Frazier (Ite Maza, Iron Face) c. 1802-1869

Deloria, Ella Cara, translator. Unpublished manuscript, “Texts from the Minnesota Manuscripts” Numbers 1 (speaker: Joseph Frazier, excerpted above), 26 (speaker: Iron Face) and likely 27 (unidentified). Franz Boas Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Frazier, Jack Iron Face: The Adventures of Jack Frazier Frontier Warrior, Scout , and Hunter A Narrative Recorded by “Walker-In-The-Pines” (Henry Hastings Sibley). Edited by Theodore Blegen and Sarah A. Davidson. Chicago: Caxton Club, 1950.

Sneve, Virginia Driving Hawk  Completing the Circle. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1995. pp. 37-48.

Photo from the flyleaf of Iron Face: The Adventures of Jack Frazier, attributed to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Discussion Questions

What reasons did Jack Frazier give for his choice to become a farmer?

In what ways were traditional Dakota life ways linked to the land?

Frazier said,”The earth is very possibly undergoing change,” he described as being like winter. Based on your reading in previous chapters of Northern Lights, what factors were changing Mni Sota Makoce, the Santee Dakota homelands?

What did other Dakotas think of Frazier’s choice to become a farmer? How do you know?

What did Frazier think of other Dakotas’ choice to remain hunters? How do you know?

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