“Research means first-person first”: Core Writer Larissa FastHorse on writing about the Dakota War of 1862

Playwrights’ Center Core Writers can use their play development funds and time however they want. This often takes the form of a play development workshop with collaborators in our theater, but sometimes playwrights choose to do research residencies. In February, Core Writer Larissa FastHorse spent a week in Minnesota doing deep, community-centered research for her History Theatre-commissioned play on the Dakota War of 1862. Playwrights’ Center intern Malick Ceesay interviewed Larissa at the close of her week. Here is their discussion:

Tell me about the Dakota War play you’re developing.

This project is a commission from the History Theatre in St. Paul. I’m half Lakota and half white. I grew up in South Dakota but my mother is from New Ulm, Minnesota, which was a pretty central part of that history of the Dakota War. As a Lakota person and also being in New Ulm, I grew up with two very different and constantly conflicting views about that time period. It’s something I’ve always wanted to write about. I pitched it to a lot of theaters around town here [in the Twin Cities] and everyone had passed on it. Then out of the blue, almost a year ago, History Theatre called me and said, “Hey, we’ve been trying to do this project about the Dakota War of 1862. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve been trying to do this forever.” Because of the way I work and the way I develop plays that involve the community—which is a fairly long involved process—we pushed it back a year. They were really good about adjusting that schedule so I could spend more time in the community and do the proper kind of work in the community to tell the story right.

Can you say more about why you wanted to write about the Dakota War of 1862?

Because it’s a history-changing moment for the whole state of Minnesota. At the end of the Dakota War of 1862, all the Dakota People were expelled from the state. That means not only did it completely change the course of history for the original people of this land, it changed the course of history for Minnesota, because they lost all Indigenous knowledge of this land. After 1862, every single person that was on this land was an immigrant from elsewhere. There was no history of the land, no history of the plants... they lost everything here in Minnesota. They lost history of how to use the waterways and the animals. All of that disappeared literally overnight when they expelled all of the Dakota People. It was really profound how much that affected everything.

Although, something that has come up several times this week from the Dakota People is that one thing to keep in perspective is: yes, it changed everything. However, there’s 10,000 years of history—beautiful history—of the Dakota People before that, and then 156 years of Dakota history after that. In many ways, six weeks has been allowed to define their entire existence, so that’s been a big thing that we’ve talked about a lot this week. Yes, that six weeks needs to be understood better (and all the years leading up to it and the effects after), but they’re also ready for a story of resilience and strength and beauty, as opposed to just the war.

How are you approaching writing this play?

I’m a research nerd. I do a lot of research. For me, research always means first-person first. I do oral history research first, and that’s why I came here this week. I can’t research the Dakota War of 1862 without speaking to the Dakota People in person and without being on the land itself. People have said you have to listen to the land, so here I was in a ground blizzard the other day, lying on the land, listening to the stories that are going to come from it. Everything has to relate to the land and the people.

With any Indigenous stories, 99.9% of the time they were not written down from their point of view, because English was not their first language or people just didn’t care to hear their point of view. So I can’t rely on written material. Even material we have that’s written on that time, most of it has been translated from a Dakota person to a white person who wrote it down. I don’t read any of that material until I speak to actual descendents, speak to Dakota folks and get the context then say, “What do you recommend I read and what context should I be listening for?” I need to know who the interpreter was, who the scribe was, and how trustworthy they were. So now I’m going home with an insane suitcase of books that Dakota People have recommended to me and said, “We’d like you to read these things to understand us.”

There’s all that, which will go on for quite a while, and I’ll be coming back and talking with more people and lying around on more ground (hopefully when it’s warmer) and doing all this reading. And then: I’m a very organic writer—I don’t outline, I don’t know what my plays are about at first, I don’t know how they end until I get there. So I’ll do all this reading and writing and visiting and then eventually a world’s going to appear.

The Dakota War of 1862 involves centuries of backstory and another century and a half of forward story, and I’m only going to be telling a teeny tiny sliver of this. It’s not the definitive play, it’s a play about this time. Eventually, in doing all this research, a world is going to appear in my head, and then eventually people are going to start talking. Once they do that, my job is simply to sit down and type as fast as I can until I get to the end. And then from there I rewrite a million times. That’s when the dramatist steps in and starts to say, “OK, we have to make this a viable piece that works on stage.” That takes a lot of rewriting. Years of rewriting. And every step of the way, every draft I have, I will come back to the Dakota community and the other people that I’ve spoken to that are involved in this project, and they will read it and they will give me the notes. That’s who I take my notes from.

How did you reach out to the community about this play? Was it through schools, community centers, certain neighborhoods?

It’s a bunch of things. I also have a consulting company that does this professionally. It’s called Indigenous Direction and we do work for organizations that want to engage with Indigenous artists or audiences. With Indigenous communities it’s very different in that you need to show up—it’s not something you can do over the phone or via email. You have to show up with Indigenous People because they have 500 years of proof why they shouldn’t trust white institutions like the History Theatre. So I have to be there myself as an Indigenous Person.

The first trip here for this play was this summer, and it happened to be when the scaffolding was put up at the Walker. It was a horrible thing that happened, but in some ways it couldn’t have been better timing for me. I spent time down at the protests, and so many Dakota People were there, and so I could talk to them about the play. I told History Theatre I couldn’t do this play unless the Dakota People wanted me to do it. They are my relatives—the Dakota and the Lakota are relatives, we are of the same people—and I’m responsible to them. So I talked to a lot of people at the protest (which, again, was great for me, and horrible for everybody else), and then I spent time just going to where Indigenous People are, setting up meetings, hanging out in the coffee shop on Franklin, just literally talking to Native People on the street, saying, “Hey, I’m doing this project, who should I talk to?” And I know a lot of Native People here already so I was able to say, “Hey can you recommend folks I should talk to?” History Theatre had some connections, too. They set up several meetings with different people they knew already. Then it’s very much word of mouth—people just need to hear what you’re about and decide if they trust you.

Then this trip, the Playwrights’ Center brought me here. Instead of a workshop I asked to do this research residency. We were able to hire a research assistant, so I reached out to a bunch of my Native friends in the Twin Cities to ask who would be a great person to be an assistant. I was guided to Sequoia Hauck, an Ojibwe woman who’s at the University of Minnesota getting a dual major in theater and Indigenous Studies. She grew up here in the Twin Cities, and despite the fact that she’s Ojibwe, she’s grown up really steeped in Dakota culture and connections. She was essential in setting things up for me, reaching out to people individually, keeping track of the schedule, and helping me find what’s available where. A lot of historical things get passed around from museum to institution to whatever, so she helped me locate things. That was really amazing and essential, to have someone on the ground, doing that work.

What was one big thing you gained from your research this week that will influence how you write the play?

This residency is such a gift, because you really have to be on the land. The Dakota culture, and pretty much any Indigenous culture on the planet, is based on the land. It’s based on: How do you feed yourself? How do you get water? What kind of homes do you build? Everything’s built off of responding to the land you’re on. Since I was here last time, I read some of the things recommend to me, some (translated) first person accounts from that time. I read them, but I hadn’t been to these places since I was a little kid. Going there—literally lying on the ground in the middle of the Birch Coulee Battlefield with this ground blizzard racing around me, just being in the spaces and as close as possible following the roads from battle to battle, following the march that took them to an internment camp here in the Twin Cities… following all those paths as closely as possible with the research that Sequoia did to help me find the actual roots—that changes everything for me as a writer. Because now when I read about someone looking across the river to this particular bluff where their home was while they were on the run with the Dakota People, I can see exactly where it was. It just changes everything. If you don’t understand the land, you don’t understand the people.

Even the white people, they were living off the land. The farmers, they’re so connected to seasons and space and geography and water and plants, so if you don’t understand the land, if you haven’t been on it you can’t really understand the story. There were so many incredibly moving and difficult stories this week, so I think that from a research perspective and a writer perspective, that was essential: to be on the land.

The other thing that really struck me this week again and again and again from every side, from everybody I talked to, was forgiveness. It’s been a recurring theme of forgiveness—for themselves, for each other, for others. It’s been this real deep need to heal and that came up so many times. I honestly didn’t expect it and I was really struck by how much that theme came through this week.

How can someone like me help support this play?

That’s a really good question. You can come to the play. You should definitely take the time to start learning about Dakota culture. It was literally intentionally erased from Minnesota. The Dakota People are here and they're alive and well and they have a beautiful fantastic culture that is vibrant and living and they have language. I met with a woman who has this incredible farm that’s bringing back all the traditional Dakota seeds. She’s got seeds that are hundreds of years old that they’re growing, and they’re also teaching traditional ways of eating. There’s so much Dakota culture right here in the Twin Cities. If you aren’t aware of it, if you aren’t engaging with it in some way, or you aren’t educating yourself about what happened in 1862 and before and after, you’re complicit. You really are. There’s no excuse not to understand, not to be learning about Dakota culture, not to be supporting Dakota artists, not to understand this history. There’s no excuse. The information is there. If you are living on Dakota land right now, which is everybody in the Twin Cities—if you are living here and not taking the responsibility for educating yourself you are complicit. So don’t be complicit.

Recommended reading from Larissa and Sequoia about Dakota Peoples:

Recommended reading from Sequoia about Ojibwe Peoples:

Web resources:

Larissa FastHorse