Book Review: In the South Dakota Country

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country by Effie Florence Putney

This is a history of South Dakota written for grade school children in the 1920s, when the frontier days were still in living memory.  (Indeed, my mother was educated in a one-room schoolhouse some years later.)  This was before Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, so the emphasis is somewhat different than a current history book might cover.

State Seal of South Dakota
State Seal of South Dakota

In the introduction, Ms. Putney explains that she’s tried to write the book in “stories” to make it easier for children to read, but never past the point of it not being good history.  The majority of the story is or intersects with Native American history, and the author tries to be evenhanded.  The war between the Ree (who were in the territory first) and the Dakota (a.k.a. Sioux) is covered in separate tales for each side.  However, there’s a lot of use of words like “savage” and “rude” (meaning crude, without craftsmanship) to refer to the native peoples.

Many of the short chapters are not so much about South Dakota as they are about people who passed through South Dakota on their voyages, such as Lewis & Clark.

The efforts of missionaries and others to “Christianize” and “civilize” the Native Americans are depicted entirely positively, and when the various difficulties between the races are brought up it’s always phrased that the Indians thought that the whites had broken treaties, rather than just admitting that the treaties had indeed been broken.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the political shenanigans around the choosing of the state capital, with two major railroads offering free rides to encourage the citizens to vote for that railroad’s favorite.  (It wound up being Pierre.)  The last chapter is about the activity of the South Dakota Volunteers in the Philippine insurrection.  Their heroism is emphasized, though it is mentioned that the Filipinos thought they had been ill-used when the U.S. refused to let them be independent after the Spanish-American War.

This book is primarily of local interest to South Dakotans, but may also be instructive to students of history who want to see how it was taught to children in the early 20th Century.  Parents of younger readers will want to discuss the history of Native Americans as we now understand it, and how prejudice can distort our images of those who are different.  This volume was reprinted in 2010, so you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy.

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: In the South Dakota Country”

  1. What a concept….teaching children about history through story telling. Although I understand the need for facts and dates, it seems history is much more enjoyable and memorable when told by way of an entertaining story!

    1. Facts and dates got in too, but a third grader, say, doesn’t need to know every last day to get the general idea.

  2. I must admit that I learn so much better through storytelling as opposed to “just the facts Ma’am” kind of books. I think too I would have enjoyed living during this time period. Of course in my daydreams it’s just like Little House on the Prairie. 🙂

    1. The TV show or the books? Speaking of which, buried deep in the back pages of this blog is a review of “A Wilder Rose”, a fictionalized biography of Laura’s daughter.

    1. It’s sometimes fascinating to read historians arguing over the interpretation of events through their own lenses.

  3. I think one of the coolest things about studying history is how our perception of events changes over time. This book, being an historical document of history itself, is a great meta view of this process. How would we write it now? What has changed about us that we would report it differently? With perspectives like this, it is easy to see that we ARE evolving and getting better as human beings as time goes on.

    1. Depending on the political views of the author, the book might be far more willing to admit that the European-American invaders did in fact repeatedly break treaties, and that the schools to rid Native American children of their language and culture were a bad idea. On the other hand, I don’t think it would get past the Texas Board of Education that way.

  4. Scott I am becoming a big fan of your writing. When I saw the book I hesitated for a moment but thought I’d see what you’d say and I’m so pleased I did. I love knowing the bull that they used to feed the children, knowing that those poor children are now our elders and some of them learned nothing since that would change their minds! I love what you’re doing with these old books. Enjoying and devouring the good and shedding a modern light on the bad. Good work.

    1. Well, my mom turned out pretty good, I think. She learned a lot over the decades, and once she retired, she started letting people know.

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