Mary Lethert Wingerd's "North Country: The Making of Minnesota" is a history of the Indian experience in Minnesota, from the first encounters with Europeans to the removal of tribes in the aftermath of the Sioux Uprising. This era is unfurled with exacting detail and personal attention to the feelings and actions of the principal characters. It is a well-done and fascinating tale.
While it is, indeed, a history of the making of Minnesota and a good tale, "North Country" is a select tale. Perhaps expectations could be served with a change in title: "The Native Minnesotans: Politics and Culture Leading to the Sioux Uprising." For that is what it covers, and there it ends. This book does not tell much about any group except as they relate to the Indians.
We get all the familiar names: Du Luth, Le Sueur, Sibley and Rice (the Henrys), and Alexander Ramsey. And others, not so famous: Joe Brown, Hastings and Prescott. There is no mention, though, of luminaries such as James J. Hill or John Ireland until the very last pages. This is not their story.
The evolution of the intricate and delicate relationship between the Indians and the traders is expressly laid out. We learn of the métis, part Native and part French, who declare themselves gens libre, free people. They all -- Indians, traders, French and métis -- were inhabitants of a northern multicultural borderland society, which, due to its location in an inaccessible interior wilderness, was largely left alone until the advent of the steamship.
Wingerd does a masterful job of making the intricacies of politics accessible, going into detail on how Minnesota became first a territory, then a state, and covering the many twists and turns of the various treaties. She has endeavored to make this a story free of the nostalgia that she remembered from the state's centennial celebration when she was a girl. It is her goal that "history must come to terms with injustice and tragedy as well as achievement." This story is as sympathetic to Indians as it can be, and seems to lament the wrong turns that the country as a whole took in that regard.
Yet it is also patriotic and full of fervor for Minnesota. The center section of 141 color plates includes maps, portraits, paintings and photographs, many of Indians, with detailed descriptions that enrich the text. There are also maps throughout the book that show the changing scene of the state.
Linda White was born in St. Paul, where she works as a writer and editor.