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.
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.