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Interview -- Dr. Paul Beck

Webmaster's Note: Historian Dr. Paul Beck discusses Dakota leader, Inkpaduta, the book about the man, and the importance of due diligence in historical research.

October 2008

Bob Reece: Thank you for talking with us today. Your new book, Inkpaduta: Dakota Leader (Inkpaduta) published by University of Oklahoma Press is the most complete biography ever written about the Santee leader. We’ll cover that momentarily, but I think readers who enjoyed Inkpaduta might not realize you have two earlier books that they would appreciate: The First Sioux War: The Grattan Fight and Blue Water Creek published by University Press of America and Soldier, Settler, and Sioux: Fort Ridgely and the Minnesota River Valley, 1853-1867 (Prairie Plains Series, No. 8) published by Center for Western Studies.

I know you have a very strong interest in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Heck, you even designed a superb miniature game of it that played incredibly accurate. Are your interests in Inkpaduta and the Santee Sioux a result from growing up in Minnesota or do they all originate because of Little Bighorn?

Paul Beck: I think a little of both. I grew up in Southern Minnesota close to where the Spirit Lake Massacre occurred. I was raised knowing about the “evil’ Inkpaduta. However, I also went to the Little Bighorn with my parents when I was six and became hooked on the battle and Sioux history from that experience. I was fascinated by the dioramas, in the Little Bighorn Battlefield museum, with the figures of soldiers and Indians fighting. I would have stood there forever if my father had not pulled me away. I have been intrigued with the battle ever since.

B.R. I think those who mostly read about the Little Bighorn but also read Inkpaduta will want to know more about you. How did you become interested in the American West?

P.B. I think I always was. When I turned two my mother put a cowboy and Indian on my birthday cake. I could have cared less about the cake; all I wanted were the figures. I have studied the west ever since.

B.R. Where did you acquire your education?

P.B. I received my undergraduate degree from Mankato State University in Minnesota, my MA in History from James Madison University in Virginia and then my PhD in 19th Century American History from Marquette University in Wisconsin.

B.R. Where do you teach and what courses?

P.B. I am a Professor of History for Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. I have been teaching there for twenty-one years. I teach a number of courses on American history which include courses on the Civil War, Native American history, and military history.

B.R. What other interests of history do you have other than the American West?

P.B. My main area has always been the Civil War. From this I decided to make my area of research Dakota/Military relations during this period.

B.R. How did you decide to take that leap and write a biography about Inkpaduta?

P.B. As I was doing research on Fort Ridgely for my first book I kept running across Inkpaduta. At the time I thought he was this evil Sioux warrior that had this amazing life. He had fought in the Dakota War of 1862, the punitive expeditions in the Dakota Territory, and finally at Little Bighorn. He was never caught by the army or punished for his supposed crimes. I thought this would make a very interesting biography. I then proceeded to do research on Inkpaduta for the next ten years. Other projects got in the way but I finally finished the manuscript in 2006.

B.R. Did you expect to find that Inkpaduta was in fact the devil that history has written of him?

P.B. Yes, I did. I had only read the secondary “white” accounts of his life and had no reason, at that time, to doubt their accuracy.

B.R. When did you realize that some accounts of Inkpaduta were just myths?

P.B. When I started to do the primary research. A totally different version of events started to emerge. The documents just did not support what historians had been writing about him or his father. For example, Inkpaduta was blamed for the killing of the Wiseman family in Nebraska. Yet, when I read the period newspaper account of the massacre Inkpaduta was never mentioned. Furthermore, all the members of the family present at the time of the attack died, there were no witnesses to the assault. Only later did people start blaming Inkpaduta. This occurs constantly with the “facts” of Inkpaduta’s life. Finally, when I interviewed present day Dakota and Lakota people I found that he is well thought of as a husband, father, and patriot. A totally different image of Inkpaduta than that of whites emerged.

B.R. I believe that most readers will be quite surprised to learn that Inkpaduta had great relationships with many of the white settlers in his area; one settler even had Inkpaduta and his band watch over the settler’s children when he had to travel on business. However, is this enough to forgive Inkpaduta for the Spirit Lake Massacres?

P.B. People and cultures are very complex. Inkpaduta was not a perfect man. The massacre at Spirit Lake was horrible and was, for me, very hard to write about. However, one must understand the circumstances that brought on the massacre. In the Sioux culture one of the main reasons for warfare was revenge. If an enemy harmed your people you had a right and obligation to strike back. In revenge warfare all people -- men, women, and children -- are fair targets. Nor do you have to strike the exact group that attacked you. Any members of that tribe or group can be attacked to obtain revenge.

The winter of 1856-57 was a brutal one. If it had not been for this winter, I doubt Inkpaduta would have attacked anyone. But the harsh winter combined with the actions of the settlers at Peterson and the death of his grandson caused Inkpaduta to attack the settlers at Spirit Lake as a revenge raid.

I think it is also worth mentioning that prior to this, the forty-two year old Inkpaduta had had no major disputes with the whites. This idea that he hated whites and was waiting for an opportunity to kill them is simply not supported by the evidence.

B.R. What do you hope readers of your book remember most from it?

P.B. A better understanding of Inkpaduta and how we need to be careful on how we interpret the past is important.

B.R. What was important to me was your due diligence in fleshing out the countless newspaper accounts from the days of the Spirit Lake Massacres; almost all of them were completely inaccurate. They reported massacres that did not exist and even towns and forts completely wiped out but did not have one Indian attack. These reports did nothing but fuel fear and hysteria to the point that innocent Indians were killed. These same newspaper accounts, reviewed by a modern day recreational historian, could have led to a completely different viewpoint of Inkpaduta or the American Indian in general. How can a researcher begin to determine fact from myth?

P.B. You are right. That is why it is so important when you do research on a project not to have an agenda or axe to grind beforehand. One must do a lot of background work to understand the time period, the culture, and past events that influence what you are writing about. It would have been easy for me to simply use the traditional sources and once again proclaim Inkpaduta to be evil if that were my intent. A good historian wants to find the truth, whatever that might be, and must allow the facts to lead him to that truth.

B.R. I think you should market your book to Hollywood. What a remarkable journey it could take us as we follow one man who commits both good and bad acts, and seems to find himself a witness to major points along the timeline of the American West. He never surrenders like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull eventually would. Inkpaduta is defiant to the end. He is a remarkable character for the big screen because he is such an enigma. Do you think you understand the man now or are you still searching for answers?

P.B. In many ways Inkpaduta is and will remain an enigma. He has no letters or diaries and much of what we know of him we gain only from white sources. Even after all my work I cannot tell you how many wives or children he had or what were all their names. There are some major periods of his life in which we know very little. However, I do feel that I have gotten to know him better and have portrayed him far more accurately than previous studies.

B.R. Are there other subjects you would like to research and publish about?

P.B. Currently I am working on the Punitive Expeditions of 1863 and 1864. I want to look at these campaigns from the point of view of the soldiers who served on them and to focus more attention on the Dakotas and how these conflicts impacted their lives. Once again, how the Sioux remember these expeditions is quite different than what has usually been written about the campaigns.

B.R. Thanks so much Dr. Beck for talking with us today. For those interested, Inkpaduta is available for order through Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield website at substantial savings. All proceeds from the sale of the book help Friends help the NPS at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

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