Pond-Dakota: Living Through Language

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Image from HHM Archives

The Dakota, like many American Indian communities, passed down information orally over generations, without incident. However, during ever-important treaty negotiations, under the pressure of white settlers to cede territory, the Dakota were forced to rely on the work of white translators, who had reputations for being unreliable and working to sway negotiations in favor of the settlers. Nonetheless, the Dakota held steadfast in their refusal to abandon their language in favor of English, a factor which presented a distinct challenge for missionaries seeking to spread Christianity among Native communities. Consequently, like any effective negotiation the two sides found a compromise. In the archives at the Hennepin History Museum there are three pocket-sized hardcover books. The covers show not only their age but also the fact that they were well-loved by their owners. These booklets tell an important part of Minnesota history.  

Samuel and Gideon Pond moved to Minnesota in the spring of 1834 from Connecticut. The brothers were inspired to pursue religious missionary work after being converted in the Second Great Awakening: a religious revival movement that swept the eastern half of the country in the first decades of the 19th century. Without any financial sponsors or professional schooling, the brothers set out to bring Christianity to the Dakota people of Minnesota. Furthermore, they lacked a government issue permit to enter Native American territory, resulting in them almost being expelled by officials at Fort Snelling. However, they convinced government officials that they would help reduce tensions between the Dakota people and settlers and were granted a permit to build a mission. 

They built a small log cabin and church on the shores of Bde Maka Ska (Lake Calhoun) and immediately set out to interview Dakota community members in order to learn the Dakota language. Samuel Pond returned to Connecticut to be ordained in 1837 and did not come back to Minnesota until late 1839. Meanwhile, Gideon spent two years working with Dr. Thomas Williamson in western Minnesota near Lac qui Parle, before returning to maintain the original mission.  

During these early years, Gideon Pond documented his life on a nearly daily basis from 1837 to 1856 in his journal. These entries reveal Gideon’s strict approach to religious teachings. Dozens of times throughout his diary entries he refers to himself as a “sinner” and deems himself an unworthy failure. This fire and brimstone approach to Christianity was also prevalent in his judgement of native peoples. This is often lead to the Ponds’ disavowing and publicly shaming Dakota cultural practices. In an entry, dated August 10, 1838, Gideon notes that the entire church is fasting for a period of several days as punishment for the misconduct of one of its members. This “misconduct” was carried out by Joseph Renville Jr, the son of a Frenchman and a Dakota woman, reportedly the only members of Pond’s congregation who could read and write in English. Gideon states that Renville had committed adultery, which he deems “the most prevalent sin among the Sioux.” This account captures the different cultural perspectives on marriage. The Dakota, along with most other indigenous communities, had practiced polygamy as part of their culture for centuries, while in Gideon’s eyes, Renville’s behavior was adulterous and a sin worthy of punishment.  

Although we have no direct accounts of the Dakota peoples’ perspective on the Pond Brothers there are hints within the pages of Gideon’s journal. Shortly after his arrival, Gideon began making close connection with Wamdi Okiye, a Dakota man who agreed to help the Pond Brothers by teaching them Dakota words. Gideon recounts a time when he told Wamdi Okiye that “he and all other men are sinners and will all be miserable forever unless they are renewed in the spirit of their minds.” Wamdi Okiye, for his part, seemed hesitant to accept this vengeful depiction of a God. Okiye, who was literate in English, sent a letter, with the signatures of multiple other Dakota members, to Gideon Pond on August 14, 1837. Pond writes, “Today we have had a new exhibition of the ingratitude of these degraded heathens by a letter from the principal chief at this village written by Wamdi Okiye reproaching us not in anger but with savage mildness because we teach that we should love others as ourselves and do not share with them what we ourselves possess.” In order to placate the Dakota’s complaints about the missionaries hypocrisy, Gideon and his fellow missionaries endeavored to negotiate with the Dakota people. Eventually Pond agreed to teach the Dakota various Euro-American agricultural practices, particularly growing and harvesting potato crops, as an incentive for them to help him learn the language.  

By mid 1838, the Pond brothers had finally attained a fair grasp of the Dakota language and set out to begin translating the Bible and delivering sermons in Dakota. Gideon remarks that on June 30 he successfully translated the Ten Commandments and had undertaken beginning to translate several of the hymns to be incorporated into Sunday services. This progressed to the eventual full creation of a written alphabet and the publishing of the Pond-Dakota Dictionary in 1852. In later years, the Pond brothers began publishing a bilingual newspaper called, The Dakota Friend. This newspaper acted as a major channel to spread information throughout the Dakota community. However, the newspaper was discontinued in August of 1852 and brought with it the end of the mission in the face of Indian Removal policy. The Dakota people were removed to four reservations in the state and the community which Gideon and Samuel Pond had immersed themselves in for nearly twenty years was decimated.  

Although the mission ended, the legacy of the cooperative work of the Pond Brothers and the Dakota people lives on. The Pond-Dakota Dictionary is still used as the primary English-Dakota dictionary today. The dictionary was proceeded by the translation of hymns that the Pond Brothers used as part of Sunday mass at the mission. These hymns were printed in small pocket-sized books, which are now part of the collection at the Hennepin History Museum. These three worn copies stand as a testament, not only to the work of the missionaries, but more importantly to the perseverance of the Dakota people in retaining their language.  

Author:  Ashley Fischer is the Undertold Stories Intern at Hennepin History Museum. She is earning a bachelor’s degree in English and History from the University of Minnesota, with a focus on literary criticism and 19th century American history. 

Sources:

Blegen, Theodore C. “The Pond Brothers.” MN History, September 1934, 273-81. Accessed February 13, 2019. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/15/v15i03p273-281.pdf. 

“The Pond Brothers.” Pond Dakota Heritage Society. Accessed February 13, 2019. http://ponddakota.org/the-story/samuel-and-gideon-pond. 

Pond, Gideon H. “Ruth Chapter 1.” Dakota Tawaxitku Kin/The Dakot Friend (St. Paul), August 1852. 

 

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