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Published April 09 2013

Dakota elders to present book of translated letters

SISSETON, S.D. – Two Dakota elders recently spent several years of their life immersed in a particularly dark period of their ancestors’ history.

But the men came out feeling hopeful.

Clifford Canku and Michael Simon, who live in Sisseton, translated 50 letters written by Dakota prisoners of war in the years following the Dakota-U.S. War of 1862 for their new book “The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters.”

A presentation scheduled for Thursday at Zandbroz Variety in Fargo was cancelled due to weather.

The U.S.-Dakota War, which was fought mostly in southwest Minnesota, broke out in August 1862 as a result of increased tensions between bands of the eastern Dakota and the U.S. government. It ended four months later with the hanging of 38 Dakota men, the largest mass execution in U.S. history.

“The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters” includes a transcription of original letters written by Dakota prisoners being held in a prison camp in Davenport, Iowa. The prisoners – all men – were held there for three years following the conclusion of the war.

The book combines the letters with a line-by-line translation to English, as well as a translation to modern Dakota English. It also offers a guide to sounding out the letters of the Dakota alphabet.

Canku and Simon are native Dakota speakers and have done translating in the past, but they quickly discovered that the letters project wasn’t going to be without its difficulties.

“It was frustrating, because sometimes the letters were very faint, hard to read,” Canku, an assistant professor of Dakota studies at North Dakota State University, says. “And also a lot of the letter-writers were not very well-written, or trained to write letters.”

In addition, Simon, a former instructor of the Dakota language at Moorhead Public Schools, says dealing with personal emotions that came up while reading about the experiences of the Dakota prisoners also posed an unexpected challenge.

“I went through mixed emotions while reading the letters,” he says. “I had to become very rational about these things, and not emotional, so that I could do a good job on the translations.”

When the process seemed the most daunting last year, Canku and Simon went into a sweat lodge to pray for guidance. It was then that they got a sign that they were on the right track, Simon says.

“The spirits came, and they told us they would help us, and what we were doing was a good thing,” he says. “So we kept going.”

In the letters they translated, Canku was surprised to see that the writers didn’t harbor any ill will against the United States, despite the conditions they were experiencing.

“It made us proud, because we’re still the same kind of people,” Canku says. “We’re very proud of the letter writers, because they are our role-models.”

Canku hopes that the book spurs an interest in the Dakota language and culture.

“I’m hoping that one day we’ll have all nationalities come help to unveil our hidden history, our hidden culture, our hidden way of looking at the world,” he says.

Likewise, Simon hopes that their work inspires people who have pieces of Dakota history in their homes to come forward and share them.

“I think there’s a lot of material out there, in families that have letters and things that pertain to the 1862 conflict,” he says. “I hope that those families bring out their documents for translation. That’s the hope I have right now.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535