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Profs discuss Dakota culture, history

August 21, 2012
By Fritz Busch - Staff Writer , The Journal

NEW ULM - Two college professors discussed Dakota culture, history and President Lincoln's involvement with the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 Monday at Turner Hall.

Dr. Gwen Westerman, a Minnesota State University, Mankato English professor who specializes in multi-cultural and Native American literature, read several of her poems in English and Dakota.

Westerman said the Dakota language includes gutteral sounds common in the German language and nasal sounds like those found in the French language.

"Language is really powerful ... Minnesota, land of the Dakota," Westerman said.

The Dakota language lives on in the name of Minnesota itself and through the names of cities and counties, she said, citing Mankato, Winona, Chaska, Shakopee, Minnetonka and Kandiyohi as well as Yellow Medicine and Blue Earth counties.

"We hear the voices of our ancestors," said Westerman, who is also an artist and quilter. "...They were real people that are important to us. Read as much as you can about them to get a richer, fuller grip of historical events."

Westerman said her direct descendants include fur trader and 1851 treaty interpreter Joseph LaFramboise, chiefs Sleepy Eye and Little Crow, plus one of the 303 Dakota originally condemned to death in 1862.

Westerman said she found a sense of redemption of sorts last week when Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton refuted former Gov. Alexander Ramsey's speech about exterminating American Indians and ordered flags to be flown at half mast on Friday - the day the U.S.-Dakota War began.

Scott W. Berg, a George Mason University professor who teaches undergraduate and graduate non-fiction writing and literature, said President Abraham Lincoln personally intervened to spare the lives of 265 Dakota men after a military court found 303 of them guilty of murder.

"Lincoln was compassionate in that he felt it was better to not immediately hang all of the condemned Dakota," Berg said.

His book "38 Nooses, Lincoln, Little Crow and the Beginning of the Frontier's End," chronicles the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 that ended in the largest government-sanctioned execution in U.S. history on Dec. 26, 1862, in Mankato.

The book places the U.S.-Dakota War events within the larger context of the U.S. Civil War, the history of the Dakota people, the later U.S.-Indian Wars, and the later influx of European settlers on former Indian territory.

(Fritz Busch can be e-mailed at



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