Don’t expect a culture to change too swiftly

Published 9:00 am Sunday, February 24, 2013

In the 1830s, a variety of Protestant missionaries arrived in the Minnesota Territory to help the Dakota Indians.

Daphne Hamborg

Daphne Hamborg

That is, they arrived to convert the Dakota to the Christian faith, and to teach them new patterns of living. The missionaries’ motives were complex. They wanted to save the lives of the Dakota, because they knew the Indians were vulnerable to the settlers and especially the government. But they also wanted to save the souls of the Dakota. They believed they were in need of spiritual as well as physical rescue.

In their work, the missionaries sought to protect the Dakota from violence, injustice and poverty. They were convinced that safety would be found in conversion. They encouraged the Dakota to become Christian. They encouraged the Dakota to change their patterns of living — giving up hunting to become farmers, for example, exchanging blankets for trousers and dresses. Men cut their hair. Women learned how to make lace. Children were brought into the homes and schools of missionaries, to learn how to speak, read and even think in English. All were to leave the old beliefs and rituals behind.

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The goal was change, but it was more than change: It was the shutting down of a culture.

A culture is a group of people with shared beliefs and behaviors. When two cultures meet, misunderstandings often occur, since assumptions and behaviors between peoples can be very different. Such differences can be educational and helpful.

However, they can also generate mistrust and even anger or fear.

Albert Lea has become a city of many cultures. It didn’t used to be that way. When I was growing up here, the primary differences were between Protestants and Catholics, Scandinavians and Germans, as well between economic groups. Although our community included a fairly significant Hispanic population even then, I remember only one African American family. That family didn’t stay in town very long.

Things have changed over the past years, however, and those changes have been complicated. Longer-term residents are hearing new languages being spoken, seeing new sorts of clothing worn and new sorts of businesses established. Unquestionably, new demands are being made on the community.

There are times when I feel irritated by the changes. Then I remember my history. It is dangerous to expect one culture to change too much for another. It is unwise to assume there is only one way to live.

Somehow, the way through has more to do with curiosity than judgment. It has more to do with compassion than it does with certainty.


Daphne Hamborg, who was born and raised in Albert Lea, is a Lutheran pastor serving in the Albert Lea area, and a historical anthropologist.

This column was written as part of a series established by the Albert Lea Human Rights Commission.