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Journeys in Lakota Tamakoče with Research and CAIRNS

Claire Thomson, PhD candidate

Research Fellow, Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies

April 3, 2018


As a PhD candidate, my doctoral research and writing has been my main pursuit for the past two years, and CAIRNS and Dr. Craig Howe have been instrumental in helping me to focus and sharpen my work. My current research aligns with the CAIRNS mission because I seek to utilize Lakota perspectives and worldviews in my dissertation to advance the knowledge and understandings of our communities. CAIRNS has been a part of my journey to learn on an academic and personal level and to make many connections in Lakota Tamakoče (Lakota Country). I’m very thankful for the support, time, space, community engagement, and lots of intellectual fodder CAIRNS and Dr. Howe have contributed to my journey. 

My doctoral research grows out of my own community and family history. My great-great grandmother, Iȟa Waštewiŋ, sought asylum in Canada with approximately 3,000 other Lakota people after the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn. By 1881 most had returned to the U.S, but she and another 200 people stayed in the present-day area of Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan. She married, began ranching, and often housed Lakota people who travelled between Wood Mountain and American Lakota communities where she had relatives, including some of her children. Some Wood Mountain Lakota people even had American reservation allotment land and collected American annuities. Why did she and other Lakota people retain connections to American Lakota communities over several generations? My dissertation will argue that the Lakota drew on their own understandings of community and relationships in Lakota Tamakoče to defy the 49th parallel and navigate constraining Indian policies in both Canada and the U.S.

My study draws on the borderlands history field that challenges the nation-state approach to Indigenous histories that have limited understandings of the past. Many scholars have concentrated on military events such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn or leaders like Cray Horse and Sitting Bull, but I’m more interested in community and family histories where Lakota perspectives are prioritized. It begins when most Canadian historians’ interest in the Lakota ends, 1881, because its focus is on those who stayed in Saskatchewan, not the majority who returned to the U.S. It ends in 1930, when the Wood Mountain Lakota reserve was ratified and a new level of surveillance ushered in. Drawing on methodologies developed in History and Native Studies that focus on family connections and Indigenous worldviews to frame historical experience, I will use Lakota Tamakoče to map Lakota relationships over time and place. I will use Lakota Tamakoče as a framework to encompass language, gender, kinship, and place to illustrate the complex web of people and their decisions rather than a history centered on nation-states’ borders and Indian policies as they impacted Lakota people.

I have completed research in the U.S. National Archives (Denver and Kansas City—Bureau of Indian Affairs), Library and Archives Canada (Ottawa—Department of Indian Affairs), and the University of South Dakota Oral History Center (Beatrice Medicine Lakota interview collection). I will continue my research by interviewing Lakota people whose families traveled between Wood Mountain and U.S. Lakota communities, especially to access women’s perspectives that are absent from written accounts. At the same time, I will also be accessing community-held Lakota language documents (written and oral) and state historical societies collections in North Dakota and South Dakota that will give more insight into local circumstances.

CAIRNS has often provided me with a peaceful space to work on research and writing, and Dr. Howe always challenges me to think more critically and openly by offering his expansive knowledge and willing mind to bounce ideas around with. Wingsprings has often given me the chance to escape the city back into the prairie to find some renewal and solitude, things I crave when I’m away from home. Now as a Research Fellow, finding support and knowledge in the other fellows has been a welcomed addition to my relationship with CAIRNS.

I first became aware of CAIRNS through my mentor and friend, Dr. Winona Wheeler, who knew Dr. Craig Howe and put me in touch with him when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Saskatchewan in 2011. I did a very small amount of work for a CAIRNS publication through Dr. Howe and Dr. Wheeler regarding the Wood Mountain Lakota First Nation. In the summer of 2013, I attended the CAIRNS Lakota History & Culture and Lakota Arts+Identities workshops in Brookings, South Dakota and from there I stayed in touch with Dr. Howe and CAIRNS as well as many other wonderful people I had met there. I’m glad I had the chance to learn and work with CAIRNS in these capacities right from the start and I’m looking forward to more such opportunities.

I lived in Rapid City, South Dakota in 2016 and 2017 with a Fulbright Scholarship to carry out research and begin to learn the Lakota language. During this time, I was eager to assist in CAIRNS projects, especially art exhibits and training workshops. I enjoy seeing people become connected through CAIRNS and the range of educational pursuits undertaken. It was during this time that Dr. Howe asked if I would like to become a Research Fellow and I jumped at the opportunity. CAIRNS and Dr. Howe’s work have been an inspiration to me as a successful model of how academic and community interests can intersect while being based within our own communities and lands, something I’m very passionate about as well.