FARGO, N.D. (AP) — 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.

“There’s a lot to be bothered by,” Maylath said. “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 written Dakota language was created by a Presbyterian missionary, Stephen Riggs. When the prisoners wrote to him, he would share the letters with families. The letters, along with other documents, were stored in a box at the Minnesota Historical Society for decades.

Hundreds of Dakota men were imprisoned after the war. Some 300 were sentenced to death. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the death sentence of 265 men, who were then sent to the prison at Fort McClellan in Davenport, Iowa.

Maylath said the letters indicate prisoners were under great pressure to convert to Christianity. Interestingly, while missionaries were trying to save their souls, the Dakota understood being “saved” to mean they would not be hanged. Maylath said the letter 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.”

Descendants of the letter writers are alive today. Some of the translators recognized names while reading the letters for the first time at the Minnesota Historical Society.

“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.”

The letters reflect the Dakota prisoners’ concern after Lincoln was assassinated. The men feared they might be killed now that the man who saved them was dead.

Canku said some letters are painful to read. He said the prisoners’ letters tell how at night, guards would rape the Dakota women who worked at the prison camp, cleaning and cooking.

“When they (guards) came after the women at night, they didn’t have any recourse but to sing and let them know, and pray,” Canku 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. Women were raped.”

Canku said the content of some letters is likely to be controversial. Some letters are likely to upset Dakota people, since they identify Dakota men who collaborated with the U.S. Army. Their descendants don’t want that information publicized, he said.

The letters 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 truth telling. He said it’s time for these long silent voices 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.”

The 50 letters translated so far were chosen because they represent a cross-section of the 150 letters in the collection.

The letters will be published early next year in book form with the original Dakota language, the literal translation, and the contemporary English explanation.

Minnesota Public Radio

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (12)
  1. Sam says:

    Wow. I will definately get this books.

  2. insignificant says:

    …and yeah…your suppSoed to trust the Feds,your protectors…WAKE UP AMERICA!!!!

  3. Sakura says:

    Publish only 50 of the letters? No, they need to publish the entire lot. That way, they can’t just choose only what they want the entire country to see. Being selective reeks of wanting to hide things from everyone. Who the heck cares if they don’t want things to come out. That’s not being a mature grown-up. Accept the things one doesn’t like. You cannot create your own history by hiding the real story and expect it to be considered the entire REAL history of what actually happened back then. What a bunch of pansies. Publish ALL of them! It is what it is, like it or not.

    1. Schelly says:

      I totally agree publish all or don’t publish any!! It’s history and should be told in completion!

  4. mark@mntaxwaste.com says:

    The dam Indians should not have murdered people

  5. Terry says:

    For Mark….you are a piece of human garbage………………….you are without a soul…………

  6. Sorry says:

    The sad thing is that we have not really changed that much since then when it comes to the way we treat “other peoples”. Back then the Indians were the subject of our mistreatment. Today it’s Iraqis, Afghanis,.. etc.

  7. lchisholm says:

    Hey Mark,

    Maybe the German farmers should have tried to be more civil to the Dakota farmers (yes, these people were horticulturalists) whose land they stole and not shot starving Dakota children who came to these same fields looking for corn.

  8. Patty T. says:

    I have a story about these letter. My mother family come from Flandreau, SD. When they first started to translate these letters she and her sisters and a brother translated several letters in Flandreau, SD. My hope is that their names are on as translator’s. It was a big job for them. Because they didn’t really get paid for translating the letter as will as other nationalities would have gotten paid. She said that they stopped because it was really sad to read the stories. My mom’s name is Virginia Weston Thompson, her sisters have passed to the spirit work their names are Margaret Weston Sherman, Ellen Weston and the brother is currently living in Flandreau his name is Elmer Weston.

  9. Bruce Trask says:

    You wrote, “Maylath said the letters indicate prisoners were under great pressure to convert to Christianity. Interestingly, while missionaries were trying to save their souls, the Dakota understood being “saved” to mean they would not be hanged. Maylath said the letter 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.”
    This is speculation? Please do not cast a shadow on our Lord’s anointed by the bad behavior of these unwise, or so called believers. I am sure these misinformed individuals missed the mark in interpreting what Jesus’ love was all about. Certainly we know there is no other thought system that leads to eternal life . Diverse languages and interpretations are hard to do. We try to help others see the love of God by shinning the salvation that we have received. The military judges would pardon if they could see improved behavior and following the path of love certainly brings a change in behavior. Vengeance is Mine saith the Lord. Forgiveness saves us and allows God’s justice to prevail over ours, if not in this life, in the next one. So forgive as you have been forgiven and save the vengeance for the Lord. He alone is just and He will take vengeance. Our duty is to forgive like he did while being nailed on the cross. He said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do. By now they know what they did and it is to late for them, but not for us.

  10. Mario Espinoza says:

    @ bruce

    you’re a typical christian that trys to cover for other christians and they try to cover for others as well. what if Christianity isn’t the right thing to believe? you say they didnt know but they believe the same religion as him. why has it changed? in 200 years from now will future christians ask there fellow population to forgive you?
    who are you to ask s not to cast a shadow? i know in the bible it asks us to not judge other on what they believe so i think before you post again.

  11. xiong says:

    mark you are a JERK who knows nothing and have the darkest of soul. Your are a blind person and people like you are the reason why all this happens. JERK FACE!!!!!!!
    also i believe that they should publish all the letters to reveal the whole truth too!!