Most people today don't realize this, but Dakota men and women were reading and writing in their own language as early as 1830.

Most people today don't realize this, but Dakota men and women were reading and writing in their own language as early as 1830.

“The first missionaries came to this area in the early 1800s. They taught us to write in the Dakota language,” said Dr. Clifford Canku earlier this month, visiting the Redwood Falls Public Library.

“When the war began in 1862, many Dakota people already knew how to read and write in their own language.

“Getting a written language was a good thing,” Canku said, “but the Dakota-English dictionary in those days didn't include too many positive traits for the Dakota culture.”

He added, “The first white travelers here were French. The Dakota spoke French before we learned English.”

After the U.S./Dakota War of 1862, Dakota prisoners were sent to Davenport, Iowa for several years.

Canku, an assistant professor of practice for Dakota Studies at North Dakota State University, has spent the past 12 years as part of a team of researchers translating letters written by Dakota men and women in prison.

“If any of the Dakota in Mankato wrote letters, we don't have them,” Canku said. “The letters that survive are from prisoners sent to Davenport, Iowa — old people, children, and women.

“A lot of Dakota artifacts were sent to museums in Europe. If we want to see our old letters, we have to travel to Paris. If we want to learn anything historical about ourselves today, we have to visit Europe.”

One of Canku's many assistants is Sandy Columbus Geshick, of the Lower Sioux Indian Community.

One reason for the translations is to help Dakota young people learn to value their language. “Our language is sacred, God-inspired language,” Canku said. “When we translate the letters, we have to figure out not just the words, but their mind, their train of thought,” Canku read from a letter written by Mose-Many-Lightning-Face in 1865, which translates into a question about Abraham Lincoln. “He refers to Lincoln as 'grandfather,' and asks if grandfather has been killed. He didn't trust the authorities, and wants confirmation from a Dakota source.” Rather than trust the U.S. mail system to deliver the prisoners' letters, they were collected by missionaries who acted as go-betweens between Dakota in prison and those outside. The Dakota letters end with variations of the phrase, “This is me.” “We didn't have written contracts, so what we said was our contract with God,” Geshick said. “It meant, 'What I said is true, with God as my witness.' Your word is your honor.” “We would pray before and after each day's work. We would ask the spirits to guide us,” said Geshick. “We had no predetermined agenda about the letters. We wanted to see what the letter writers themselves said, and sometimes it was very emotional.” The results of Canku's and Geshick's efforts will be published by the Minnesota Historical Society in November.