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Published February 17, 2011, 07:39 PM

Dakota Indian Translates History-Rich Letters from the 1800's

Dakota Indian translates history-rich letters from the 1800's For years, the history-rich letters have sat boxed up waiting to be read. This winter, on the campus of NDSU, one man is helping re-write that piece of Minnesota history.

By: Kevin Wallevand, WDAZ

Thanks to Keith Bear and Makoche Music. They can be contacted at glatt@makoche.com

Hundreds of Minnesota settlers, soldiers and Indians died in the war. In the letters, just now being translated here in Fargo, we learn many Dakota Indians died from disease or froze to death in those prison camps. That part of Minnesota’s history? Some of her darkest days still scar the tribe today.

In a small, cramped office on the campus of NDSU, Clifford Canku is listening to the past. Not just the past, his ancestors are talking.

“A spirit came to me one day,” Canku said.

Clifford is a Dakota Elder, a college instructor, and respected tribal member who is now, for the first time ever, translating dozens of letters written by Dakota Indians in Minnesota, who were put in prison camps following the 1862 war there.

“Here we have more than 50 letters. This one was from 1864,” Canku said.

It was an ugly time in Minnesota history. Treaties were made and broken, attempts to remove Native Americans from the land, and when some Dakota Indians killed pioneer settlers in Minnesota, it set off a wave of war. Soldiers, Indians, and settlers all suffered casualties. 38 Dakota would later hang in Mankato.

“So it is very personal.”

Personal because Clifford's ancestors would be some of the thousand or more Dakota brought to prison camps scattered across Minnesota and Iowa.

“Nine members of our family were brought to concentration camps.”

Women, children, men called warriors who would write letters 150 years ago from those camps. They are words that are just now being translated.

“Felt that I was called to do this and had a responsibility to them.”

More than a century after that war, time has not healed. The Dakota, who once roamed Minnesota, still feel the pain.

“We are still in exile today.”

And so it is hoped these letters and the stories from them, it is hoped will give historians and young Native Americans a chance to see and hear the secrets of that time.

“We look at this as an opportunity to fill in the pieces of the puzzle that is still not put together.”

And provide the next generation of Dakota a look at their past.

“And I feel a challenge to take on that responsibility I feel no bitterness, I feel pride. We are still here.”

The NDSU English Department is working with Clifford on the translation project and will help write and publish a book next year about the letters.