MOORHEAD — Clifford Canku’s first language while growing up on the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate reservation was Dakota. He spoke his first English at age 6, when he was sent to school.
Now 80, Canku put his fluency in Dakota to work translating important documents of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, when some starving Dakotas started a war against traders and settlers in Minnesota.
Canku learned that his own family has a tragic connection to the Dakota Uprising, as the war also was called. Nine members of his family were captured and sent to Fort Snelling — “implicated for being Dakota.”
Some escaped and fled west to Dakota Territory and elsewhere. But the fate of the nine who were captured remains unknown.
In 2002, Canku learned of letters written by Dakota men who were held as prisoners of war. He and co-author Michael Simon led a team of translators in a book project, “The Dakota Prisoner of War Letters.”
Canku, a former assistant professor of Dakota studies at North Dakota State University, will give a talk about the letters at 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead. The book was published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2013.
Most of the letters were written to Stephen Return Riggs, a missionary Presbyterian pastor who had taught many Dakotas to write in their native language, starting in the 1840s until the war broke out in 1862. They wrote Riggs in the hope he would read them to their relatives.
The 265 Dakota captives were being held at Camp Kearney near Davenport, Iowa. Conditions were harsh, and it appears 120 could have died from sickness or freezing to death, according to the book.
“I am very sad today, and also very dependent upon you for my existence — it is so,” Robert Hopkins, also named First Born Son, wrote Riggs in May 1864. “They said my wife has disappeared, therefore I am very heartbroken.”
Hopkins went on to write that the winter before, the men had been told they were going to die — 38 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minn., in the nation’s largest mass execution.
“I am looking forward to my death and execution at the appropriate time,” Hopkins wrote. “As long as they don’t set me free, I know I haven’t committed one bad action, and I think I shall and want to be honest and good.”
The 50 letters translated in the book — part of 150 letters he has helped translate over the years from Dakota into English — are an important record of the cruel oppression that the Dakota faced as they were forced to assimilate into white culture, Canku said.
Given the sorrow and the grim nature of the letters, translating them was a difficult task, he said.
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“It was very painful,” he added. “In a sense we had to reconcile ourselves as descendants of people who were very much oppressed by the United States government.”
More documents tucked away in archives are waiting to be made accessible.
“There are many other letters out there that need to be translated,” Canku said. But six years after the book’s publication, Canku is the only member of the translation team who is still alive.
Much of the history was lost because it was too painful for families to discuss. When he was growing up in the Long Hollow District at Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate in northeast South Dakota, Canku’s parents would not talk about the 1862 war and aftermath.
“People never talked about it much,” he said. “People just didn’t want to revisit being the object of the enemy — they didn’t want to be looked at as the enemy that resisted and fought the United States.”
Now that his eyesight is declining, and translation has become difficult, Canku hopes that younger generations of Dakotas will resume the important work of preserving the tribes’ history.
"My personal hope is our Dakota students will delve into the real history of our people," he said, "and not hear the history from a secondary source."
If you go:
What: A talk about "Dakota Prisoner of War Letters," a book of letters translated from Dakota to English written by prisoners held captive after the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War in Minnesota.
Who: Clifford Canku, author of the book and translator.
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, May 21
Where: Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, Historical & Cultural Society of Clay County