Letters illuminate dark era for Dakota people

Clifford Canku is co-author of "The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters," a translation of 50 letters written by Dakota prisoners who were held in an Iowa camp after the 1862 uprising.
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Among the reasons to be grateful that Minnesota has paid attention to the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War are the new books that have been published, by Minnesota publishers and others.

One book that would have been inconceivable at the 125th anniversary in 1987 was just published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press: "The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters," a translation of 50 letters written by Dakota prisoners who were held in an Iowa camp after the 1862 uprising.

The letters were to missionaries Stephen R. Riggs and Thomas S. Williamson, who were known to many in the Dakota community when war broke out and were deeply involved in the aftermath; for Riggs' part, he assisted in translating for the Dakota and white military leaders during the court process that resulted in 38 Dakota warriors being hanged in Mankato in December 1862.

Many of the letters are haunting and deeply moving notes to loved ones; others are meditations on the tragedy that had befallen all of them. Some are more prosaic and just ask for information, but most are along these lines:

"But, I said, maybe there in heaven the Holy Spirit, if he pities us, I am thinking we will see each other."


Or this: "I am very sad today, and also very dependent upon you for my existence — it is so. They said my wife has disappeared, therefore I am very heartbroken. Last winter, they said I was going to die. Lately, I just heard that, and then I began to suddenly think, when will I die? When I die, I hope it is quickly and I shall go to be with the Great Spirit in His home. I think I will not be afraid."

The translations are by two Dakota elders, Clifford Canku and Michael Simon , who are among the few people who still speak fluent Dakota. Canku, an assistant professor of Dakota studies at North Dakota State University in Fargo, is a well-known Dakota scholar who has worked hard to keep the language alive, through books and teaching. He'll be featured in a program at Indian Heights Park in Rochester in August. Simon is an instructor of Dakota language in the Moorhead, Minn., public schools.

Both are enrolled members of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, or tribe, and together they culled letters from the historical society's collection, transcribed them in Dakota, and then translated them into English.

The Dakota and English words are presented side by side, and the book is a language tutorial for those who are interested, as well as an example of how some important primary texts about the Dakota War are just now being rediscovered.

Canku and Simon had help from many people in the Lower Sioux, Sisseton Wahpeton and other communities; among them was Sandee Geshick, from the Lower Sioux Indian Community, who spoke at the Post-Bulletin Dialogues event about the Dakota War in December.

Of the 270 Dakota men who were moved from the temporary prison at Mankato to Camp McClellan in Davenport, Iowa, more than 120 died there. Others were sent on to barren reservation land in South Dakota; a few were released.

This book couldn't have been published, at least with this degree of authenticity and attention paid to Dakota language and perspective, in 1987. Even now, the term "prisoner of war" is startling, but it's the only one that will do. Hundreds of Dakota men, women and children were rounded up after the uprising, kept in a prison camp at Fort Snelling through a brutal winter, then shipped further south and west.

By that time, Minnesota and U.S. lawmakers had exiled the Dakota people "forever" from the state. Bounties were paid for their scalps, and their history and culture here were basically wiped away.


"Prisoner of war" doesn't seem exactly right, however. It implies a more orderly, judicious process, where POWs are treated with some minimal level of humanity.

I don't think many historians would say that what happened in the aftermath of the Dakota War was just or humane. This book and others like it help to recover some of the truth of that era.

As the translators say in the introduction, "Calling the spirits of the Dakota prisoners of war: This is your day. We are grandchildren in the present to whom you give this responsibility. These letters you hand down to us tell future generations that the people may end their afflictions and live."

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