Business Interests

For centuries, Dakota, Ojibwe, and other American Indian nations maintained trade networks that extended across the continent. Over time, these Indigenous economies were profoundly affected by the spreading influence of European and U.S. businesses in North America.

Spiritual Approach to Treaties

Instead of trading for resources from the natural world, Indigenous nations began incorporating manufactured goods into their cultural practices. Initially, Europeans and Americans were merely suppliers of items such as weapons that would create trade and military advantages. In early treaties, Dakota and Ojibwe people were more concerned with their American Indian neighbors than with the U.S., England, or France.

The collapse of the fur trade in the 1830's transformed business relations among Dakota and Ojibwe people and the US. Fur traders pressured American Indians to sell their land to pay debts. One popular conception about the history of U.S.-Indian relations – that American Indians lost their land primarily through military defeat – is especially untrue in what is now Minnesota. Less than 2% of Minnesota’s land area was acquired by the U.S. through military action (in the abrogation of Dakota treaties after the War of 1862). Economic factors had a greater affect on Dakota and Ojibwe land cessions than did military might.

As American traders became land speculators and timber barons, their business interests replaced their family obligations in shaping U.S.-Indian relations. Family ties with American Indians became, for American businesses, a way to engineer land cessions from Dakota and Ojibwe leaders, many of whom still assumed that relatives would take their best interests into account. In the long series of broken promises that mark U.S.-Indian relations, some of the most tragic involve the betrayal of family obligations by American businessmen who benefited materially from the impoverishment of their relatives.

New generations of American businessmen arrived in what is now Minnesota with no cultural ties at all to Ojibwe and Dakota people. Their connections replaced Dakota and Ojibwe families as the avenues along which material benefit flowed. Many of the natural resources of Minnesota were captured by these new networks of business and family ties, political patronage, and treaty signers.

The stakes were enormous: individual material gain on a spectacular scale versus the survival of ways of life in which land was the source of spiritual connection to something larger than the individual.

Business: Benefiting a People

Traditional Dakota and Ojibwe economies were built to ensure communal, rather than individual benefits. This cultural value survived through the treaty making era, despite U.S. pressures to adopt new models for economic activity in which individual material gain is the goal.

Dakota leader Little Crow established a fur trade company in his home village of Kaposia, in which the profits were broadly distributed. (The company was forced out of business by U.S. insistence on trade monopolies for U.S.-licensed fur traders.) This effort was undertaken at a time when the U.S. was distributing farms, houses, and annuity payments to individual Dakota and Ojibwe leaders in the treaty-make process, hoping to encourage a change in cultural values. Today, tribal enterprises such as gaming and fishing produce economic benefits that are shared by all members.