150-year-old letters give voice to Dakota prisoners [Abe lincoln]
Read the entire article: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/01/19/dakota-tribe-letters/
Condensed by Native Village

North Dakota: The voices of Dakota men imprisoned after the Dakota Conflict of 1862 are finally being heard.

Clifford Canku from North Dakota State University has spent 10 years studying letters written by those prisoners. The letters and other documents had been stored away at the Minnesota Historical Society.  Canku has to pore over the faint handwriting with a magnifying glass to read them.

"One letter would take about a week," said the Dakota elder who teaches Dakota language at NDSU. Canku is one of three lead translators on the project. 

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 new details and important first-person perspective to a troubling time in history.

"There's a lot to be bothered by," said NDSU professor Bruce Maylath. "This has been a one-sided story to this point. And for the first time this tells the other side -- directly from the Dakota side. And it tells it in the language they were most comfortable in."

The Dakota War of 1862 was an armed conflict between the U.S. and several bands of eastern Dakota Sioux.  It began in August, 1862 and ended in December with the execution of 38 Dakota in Mankato, Minnesota.

The Dakota fought because the U.S. violated treaties that caused severe hunger and hardship among the Dakota. Traders with the Dakota had insisted the U.S. pay the tribal annuities directly to them.

In mid-1862 the Dakota demanded the annuities be paid to the tribes.  After traders refused to provide supplies on credit under those conditions, the Dakota began attacking white settlers to drive them off their lands. These battles continued for several months until most Dakota bands surrendered to the U.S. Army.

By late December 1862, more than 1,000 Dakota captives were jailed in Minnesota. Some 300 were sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the death sentence of 265 men who were then sent to the Fort McClellan prison in Iowa.

Maylath said some letters written by Dakota prisoners' suggest they were being pressured to convert to Christianity.  Some writers asked about young men who disappeared from prison.

"There's speculation in the letters about perhaps the young men disappeared because they refused to convert to Christianity," he said. "We do know those young men were never seen again."

The letters also reflect the prisoners' concern after Lincoln was assassinated. The men feared they would be killed because the man who saved them was dead.

Many prisoners have descendents who are alive today. The translators realized this when reading the letters for the first time.

"One of them would turn to me with a letter and say, 'Flag this one. It's by my great-great-grandfather,'" Maylath said. "And to have the voices of the ancestors right there, visible in their own handwriting, that was the most moving thing to me."

Canku said some letters are painful to read. One tells how the guards would rape Dakota women who cleaned and cooked at the prison camp.

"When they [guards] came after the women at night, [the prisoners] didn't have any recourse but to sing and let them know, and pray," he said, "to let the women know 'we're leaving you in the presence of God. Because if we were able to help we would have stopped what's going on. But we can't.'

"When we read these letters to common everyday people, especially the women cry and go through a tremendous amount of anguish, because they have their own stories about what happened to their relatives back then," Canku said. "A lot of them were killed."


Canku said some letters are likely to be controversial. Some may upset Dakota people because Dakota men who helped the U.S. Army are identified. They will also raise uncomfortable questions for historians.

"What happened? Did they have concentration camps in Minnesota? Even today, people don't believe that," Canku said. "People died. They were in prison. They experienced genocide. And when you talk about these things you are going to get opposition saying, no, these things didn't happen. But they did happen."

For Canku, the project is about telling the truth through long silent voices which need to be heard.

"I think it's spiritually inspired by our ancestors," he said. "It's time to do this and give the information out. I feel a tremendous responsibility to carry this through."

Next year, 50 of the 150 letters will be published in book form with the original Dakota language, the literal translation, and the contemporary English explanation.

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