Gwen Westerman stood on the stage at the Edina Performing Arts Center, speaking in Dakota to the audience.
After a bit of prompting in English, the 10th grade students were able to piece together what she was saying.
Her message to the students: This is the land of the Dakota.
Westerman, director of the Humanities Program at Minnesota State University Mankato, spoke to the Pre-AP English students on Friday, Dec. 14, about the Dakota culture as the conclusion of the classes’ project on colonization.
Westerman said afterward that although the students may not remember everything she said, they’ll remember hearing the Dakota language and know that Minnesota is a Dakota place, which will help as they form their worldview.
It’s important to reach out to young people who are still shaping their view of history and the world. Students will take away the notion that Dakota people still exist and they are an educated and articulate people, she said.
She was told to always begin by speaking in Dakota so that people know the language is still alive. The Dakota are working hard to ensure that children grow up speaking the language.
When she asked how many students speak the language of their parents at home, students said they speak Greek, Tibetan and Dutch at home. When she asked how many students are of Norwegian descent and speak Norwegian at home, no students raised their hands. A spattering of students raised their hands when she asked if they speak the language of their German ancestors.
“Do you see how quickly a language can be lost when it’s not spoken in the home?” she pointed out. When Westerman’s great-great-grandmother came home from boarding school, where Indian children were forbidden to speak their language, she greeted her family members in English and her siblings didn’t know why, she said.
The problem today is that Dakota children are learning the language, but they don’t see a place for it in today’s society, she said. They say, “It doesn’t get me a job.”
However, Dakota words are always with Minnesotans because the state is full of them – Minnesota, Shakopee, Chaska, Winona, Mankato, Owatonna, Minnetonka, Wayzata.
“You speak Dakota every day without knowing it,” she said.
People know the story of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox more than they know the story of the Dakota.
The Dakota believe they were created where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers come together. Westerman pointed out that her roots are in Minnesota, even though the Dakota now live in South Dakota, where they were removed to in 1862.
Letters written by Dakota people dating back to 1835 that sit in the Minnesota Historical Society’s collection prove that the Dakota were able to read and write and weren’t “uneducated savages,” she said.
She began singing a song in Dakota from a 19th century Dakota child’s lesson book and students recognized the tune as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”
“How ironic is that? My country. Sweet land of liberty. Land where my fathers died. My country, my country,” she asked.
Students also saw photos of Dakota men, while Westerman had students ponder why it’s important to remember the names of people.
“It takes away their identity,” she concluded.
She also showed the photos of the men who were the first to tell the Dakotans’ stories – all white, all missionaries.
A photo of Gov. Henry Hastings Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, was among them. He led part of the troops during the 1863 Whitestone Hill massacre, where troops burned the homes and food of the Dakota, killed their horses and dogs and took the survivors as prisoners. She said Sibley was one of the founders of the Minnesota Historical Society that tells the story of the Dakota people.
She concluded by telling the students that the people who maintain archives choose the information that goes into exhibits.
“People have a lot of power over what is shown,” she said.