— Gwen Westerman is an enrolled member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota Oyate. Both of her parents are native, as were all four of her grandparents and all eight of her great-grandparents.
Originally from Kansas, she didn’t grow up on a reservation. But Native American culture has always been a big part of her life, and in her years teaching English at Minnesota State University, she has immersed herself in research projects related to Dakota people and their impact on the area.
“This is where my father’s family is originally from,” said Westerman, also director of the humanities program at MSU.
Westerman will present findings from her latest research project at the 25th-annual Douglas R. Moore Faculty Research Lecture 7 p.m. Thursday in Ostrander Auditorium in the student union at MSU. She will discuss the Dakota people’s significance to society in the mid-19th century, around the time of the U.S.-Dakota War.
The lecture, called “Dena Unkiyepi (This is who we are): The Letters of the Dakota People 1848-1864,” stems from numerous hand-written letters by Dakota people in Dakota language that she found at the Minnesota Historical Society in 1995. The event is free and open to the public.
“I think people knew they were there, but nobody knew the language, so they couldn’t translate or transcribe them,” she said.
Neither could Westerman in 1995, nor did she have the time to immerse herself in that kind of research. But she hoped one day to return to the letters and learn what they said.
“One day” came in 2009. She worked with people who speak the Dakota language to translate many of the letters, choosing ones written by recognizable people or that were simply legible enough to read. Westerman transcribed the letters, which were written to missionaries, traders, political leaders and family members in the mid-19th century. Recipients included Henry Sibley, Minnesota’s first governor, Bishop Henry Whipple, the first Episcopal bishop of Minnesota, and missionary John Williamson, among many others.