Clifford Canku and NDSU graduate students’ project details Native American prisoners’ experiences
Clifford Canku is unveiling history of North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa Native American prisoners and their families by translating letters written by prisoners of the 1862 Dakota Conflict that took the lives of hundreds of Native Americans settlers and soldiers.
The project has allowed graduate students a rare opportunity to work as editorial assistants to earn publishing credits for their field experience work. Rebecca West and Stashenko Hempeck, doctoral students in rhetoric, writing and culture, helped organize, format and keep an account of the historic documents. “This was a profound experience. It was the first time I had the opportunity to work with the people native to this area and working with the POW letters was surreal, like being transported in time,” said West. “Reading the letters had an emotional effect on me.”
The letters were written in Dakota language and offer a glimpse into the experiences of the prisoners in 1866. Canku (pronounced “Chan-koo”) is one of very few people capable of translating the letters to English. “I am a representative, a forerunner of the people who can come here and do this work for their people,” he said.
The original letter collection is housed at the Minnesota State Historical Society. Funded in part by the NDSU Gunlogson Fund, the project has taken more than 10 years for Canku and his team. When finished, the group will publish 50 of the 150 hand-written first-person letters in a book that will include content from the original Dakota language, a translation and an explanation in English.
Because the population of the Dakota tribe is so small, Canku and other translators recognized names of ancestors while reading the letters for the first time and realized that descendants of the letter writers are alive today. Many of the letters detail the experiences of prisoners in Minnesota and Iowa prison camps. The letters raise questions for historians. Canku says the content of the letters may be controversial and could upset Dakota people since they identify prisoners who collaborated with the U.S. Army.
For Canku and his students, the project is about uncovering history, telling the truth and allowing the prisoners’ voices to be heard. He says the letters offered prisoners the opportunity to “make right” things they had done in the past.
“This project means I have to be true to what is in those letters. I want this project to be an archetype of research done by Native American students. A lot of our history is in museums and no one knows what to do with it. I hope this project will open the flood gates for research… representing the people,” Canku said.