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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Dakota Prisoner Of War Letters, A Review

Dakĥota Kaškapi Okicize Wowapi: The Dakota Prisoner Of War Letters, A Book Review


I received my copy of Dr. Clifford Canku’s The Dakota Prisoner Of War Letters: Dakota Kaškapi Okicize Wowapi through the mail and I carefully removed it from the box it came in. I was excited to read it, but not joyous to do so. Its about a real life tragedy, the consequences of which the Dakota and Lakota are still living with today. 

My initial perception of the book, my judgment of the book based on its cover, was that I was getting a book in the vein of Albert White Hat’s Life’s Journey. In the case of White Hat’s book, the transcriber, Mr. John Cunningham, and White Hat took great pains to keep the oration of the book even as a translation into English as how a traditional Lakota would speak English. White Hat’s work retains the “flavor” of the language.

Canku’s book goes a step further. Not only did White Hat and his associates invest several years translating beautifully hand-written letters in Dakota to English, Canku keeps the original Dakota, but he adds a word for word translation, then a free translation into English which contains Dakota connotations.

Dr. Canku carefully reads a letter of a Dakota prisoner.

There are two things which reached out to me about this book. The first being that its about the Dakota who became prisoners of war following the Minnesota Dakota Conflict of 1862. The book contains letters, first-person accounts of innocent men and women who were wrongly accused and imprisoned. They weren’t US Citizens, so due process didn’t apply to them, so they were guilty and imprisoned until they were determined to be innocent or no longer a threat.

Part of the story of the letters involves a missionary to the Dakota people, Rev. Stephen Riggs.

Riggs, a missionary among the Dakota in the 1850s, was present when cases involving the Dakota were judged, as fast as the service at a fast food restaurant. In one day, Riggs saw forty Dakota cases judged and sentenced to death in about seven hours. Some of the cases took mere minutes.

The missionary Stephen Riggs.

Missionaries, including Riggs, visited the Dakota prisoners, and converted a captive audience, while writing their letters of appeal for them, letters to loved ones at different agencies and letters to military commanders pledging to never more resist the American expansion westward.

The second thing which reached out to me was that the book is bi-lingual. There aren’t many resources published in both Dakota and English. As a person whose first language is English, and being a Dakota-Lakota person, having the original Dakota language present for me to read and learn is wonderful.

The most intriguing part of this book is the scholar himself. Dr. Clifford Canku. He is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate and a retired Presbyterian minister. Canku is a common man and his stirring introduction includes early efforts from the previous teams he worked with at FlandreauSD, the Sisseton Wahpeton College, and then North Dakota State University. Even though his name is on the cover alongside Michael Simon, Canku is quick to acknowledge the efforts of others.

Taoyate Duta, His Red Nation, more commonly known as "Little Crow."

Before being brought on to earliest efforts of this translation project, Canku was visited by the spirit of Taoyate Duta (His Red Nation; aka Little Crow). Throughout the translation process, a spiritual presence was always present. When the project wrapped, Canku received another visitor through a dream. He was at a sundance in this dream and a old man was brought into the east gate where his name was announced four times. The grandfather’s name: Wakaŋboide (Sacred Blazing Fire). The grandfather came to Canku and said, “Hau, wičohaŋ ečanupi kiŋ de wašhté do.” (Yes, the work you are doing is good, it is so.)

Canku is deliberate in that the reader, casual or otherwise, clearly understands that the book is about the Dakota prisoners of war. There are plenty of books out there, and more so with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Dakota War, but Canku’s and Simon’s book is the only published primary resource from the perspective of the people who fought, the people who defended, and the people who were entirely innocent of the 1862 Minnesota Dakota Conflict.

Camp Kearny, where the Dakota prisoners of war were taken.

An excerpt of one of the letters places the reader in the first person. Wiŋyaŋ, or Woman, writes to her relative Pa Yuĥa, Curly Head, about starving and the heartbreak in the prison camp at DavenportIowa:
…my heart is so very broken, it is so. Last summer, we all know one terrible event has occurred, and always we are very heartbroken, because now again, my heart if broken very much, because this winter we are without, we are all suffering. I hate to live, it is so. And now where will they take us?...now we don’t know where they will take us, and therefore I thought maybe we will never see all of you, and therefore my heart is very sad.

Another letter by Stands On Earth Woman tells her relative His Country that she is recently widowed and with a new baby, at the prison camp. She asks for her relative’s assistance because she literally has nothing and she’s starving.

Get this book if you are interested in the “other” side, the forgotten side of the story. Get this book to support a native elder and scholar, but get this book so that we never forget what happened as a result of this terrible conflict. 

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