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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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English Professor Translates Dakota Letters

Gwen Westerman will present findings from 19th century letters at annual Moore lecture.

Amanda Dyslin, Mankato Free Press, 4-18-2012

Gwen Westerman is an enrolled member of the Sisseton­ Wahpeton Dakota Oyate. Both of her parents were native, as were all four of her grandparents and all eight of her great-grandparents.

Originally from Kansas, she didn’t grow up on a reservation.

But Native American culture has always been a big part of her life, and in her years teaching English at Minnesota State University, she has immersed herself in research projects related to Dakota people and their impact on the area.

“This is where my father’s family is originally from,” said Westerman, also director of the humanities program at MSU.

Westerman will present findings from her latest research project at the 25th-annual Douglas R. Moore Faculty Research Lecture Thursday night at MSU. She will discuss the Dakota people’s significance to society in the mid-19th century, around the time of the U.S.-Dakota War.

The lecture, called “Dena Unkiyepi (This is who we are): The Letters of the Dakota People 1848-1864,” stems from numerous handwritten letters by Dakota people in Dakota language that she found at the Minnesota Historical Society in 1995.

“I think people knew they were there, but nobody knew the language, so they couldn’t translate or transcribe them,” she said.

Neither could Westerman in 1995, nor did she have the time to immerse herself in that kind of research. But she hoped one day to return to the letters and learn what they said.

“One day” came in 2009. She worked with people who speak the Dakota language to translate many of the letters, choosing ones written by recognizable people or that were simply legible enough to read.

Westerman transcribed the letters, which were written to missionaries, traders, political leaders and family members in the mid-19th century.

Recipients included Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, Bishop Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, and missionary John Williamson, among many others.

“They talk a lot about their families, their living conditions; they talk about their desire to live a good life, and they wonder about their future in Minnesota,” Westerman said. “It’s a wide variety, but they were written mostly to the missionaries.”

Some of the most interesting letters were written by Dakota people imprisoned in Davenport, Iowa, after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

They talked about the living conditions in the prisons and the suffering of their families, she said.

“John Williamson, one of the missionaries, wrote that he was sending packets of 100 or more letters every week from Crow Creek to Davenport from families writing back and forth,” she said.

Westerman also found letters from and about some of her ancestors.

“It’s a project that’s pretty significant for me personally,” she said.

“It was like reading letters from my great-grandparents.”

But Westerman said the letters are emotional regardless of a family connection.

“They talk about the conditions of people suffering,” she said.

“When they talk about, ‘Our children are dying.’ ‘I only have one daughter left.’ ‘We’re waiting for goods from the agent.’ ‘ The children are sick, or died of measles or flu,’ that’s what’s really heartwrenching to read in those letters.”

Dakota people began writing with a Roman alphabet developed by missionaries in the mid-1840s.

Their letters are of great significance, Westerman said, and offer a rare opportunity for the voices of the people to speak for themselves.

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