Monday, January 24, 2011
150-year-old letters give voice to Dakota prisoners
January 19, 2011
Fargo, N.D. — For nearly 150 years, the voices of Dakota men imprisoned after the Dakota Conflict of 1862 went unheard.
But the details of their imprisonment are starting to emerge, in letters written by those prisoners after six weeks of fighting along the Minnesota River Valley that left hundreds of Indians, settlers and soldiers dead.
In a tiny office at North Dakota State University in Fargo, Clifford Canku has spent 10 years poring over the faint handwriting with a magnifying glass.
"One letter would take about a week," said Canku, a Dakota elder who teaches Dakota language at North Dakota State. Canku is one of three lead translators on the project, which has unearthed never-before revealed details of a turbulent episode in Minnesota history.
Some of the letter writers talk about the war; others describe prison life.
"We're very cold, and they took the stove away from us," one prisoner wrote. "It's way below zero and we're freezing. A lot of people have died."
The letters add important first-person perspective to a troubling time in history, said professor Bruce Maylath, one of Canku's colleagues in the NDSU English Department. They plan to publish 50 of the letters.