FLANDREAU, S.D. - Two historians are translating more than 200 letters written in the early 1860s by Dakota prisoners jailed following the Dakota Conflict.
The letters are part of a multi-media exhibit on display at the Agnes C. Ross Education Center on the south edge of Flandreau near the Royal River Casino.
Excerpts of the 20 letters written to the Rev. Steven Riggs, a missionary who ministered to the prisoners, are part of a walk through the history of the Dakota people.
The letter project was launched when a scholar working on an academic research project contacted tribal historian Bill Bean. The tribe used an $18,000 federal grant to fund the project.
Bean wanted to transcribe the letters because they serve as the remaining connection to his own people and he said he could feel a presence in them.
"There was always something spiritual about the letters. I could almost hear the voices."
The project was a way to bring Santee Sioux tribal members a resource so they could study their history and help preserve the Dakota language, said Mona Miyasato, one of two tribal members who initiated the translation effort.
The letters show the beautiful script of prisoners who used quill pens, jars of liquid ink and small letter tablets. Contents portray the worries and the struggles of prisoners waiting to find out what would become of them.
Translating them has been a daunting effort and required the help of six individuals who had sufficient knowledge of the language, she said.
Only five of the six translators of the first 20 letters remain available, including the Rev. Clifford Canku of Sisseton and Elmer Weston, Virginia Weston, Sid Byrd and Margaret Sherman, all from the Flandreau Santee Tribe. Agnes C. Ross, who helped in the translation died earlier this year.
Further help came from Deb Amburn, multi-media technician. Amburn's role is helping prepare computer enhancements that allow the letters to be transcribed more readily, said Miyasato, site coordinator.
Several methods of computer enhancement are needed to make the copies legible enough for translators to decipher them. In addition, each line was enlarged into a huge banner making it easier for elderly linguists to read the passages.
Miyasato noted one challenge is that the sheets of paper are smudged with of ink and faint letter forms make translation more difficult. Some may have faded over time or supplies for the prisoners may have been limited.
However, the project doesn't stop with written communication. Letters were read aloud by translators to get a better grasp of context and interpretation. The efforts were taped so interpreters could review them and to allow TECWEB to create an audio library to help tribal members learn conversational elements of the language more easily learn it, Miyasato said. "I see a direct connection with the Dakota prisoners and what will become of us."
Miyasato said she believes there are only a few people left who can actually speak the language and without the project the language would be lost.
"We're doing a lot of recording, trying to get as much of the Dakota language preserved," she said.
There is difficulty in trying to interpret the older words in the Dakota language. They have to rely on tracing the words through the context of a phrase, Miyasato said.
"We try to translate them as accurately as possible, but it is hard because it is like reading backwards. We try to interpret them the way we feel they were meant by the one who wrote them, but I don't think there is any way we can ever be entirely accurate," Bean said.
Miyasato pointed out that in some of the letters references to a father figure were more than likely referring to President Abraham Lincoln. In one particular, letter a prisoner is believed to be talking about his own uncertainty after hearing the news of Lincoln's assassination. The president's death left prisoners in fear for their lives.
Another prisoner, she said, described his brother, which more than likely was a reference to a close friend whose life was placed in the balance during the trials.
Prisoners converted to Christianity wrote some of the letters. Others were written by those learning to read and write the Dakota language.
With only 20 of the letters transcribed, they haven't revealed more about the chronology of events surrounding the conflict, the condemnation of more than 300 prisoners or the trial which eventually led to the deaths of 38 of them.
They do reveal expressions of sorrow, grief and helplessness and the uncertainty of prisoners awaiting an outcome. Some have simple requests for more books on religion while others wrote about their living conditions after being imprisoned.
Translators were overcome with emotion while reading many of the letters illustrating the sadness the prisoners faced.
"The translation was overwhelming at times. It can be an emotional roller coaster," Bean said.
Those who watch the multimedia presentation and walk through the pictorial exhibit experience similar emotions. They start with a presentation using computers with sound bites about the history of the tribe. The photos and sketches used in the exhibit were from the archives of the Minnesota Historical Society.
Visitors say they find themselves captivated by photos of tribal leaders and the words left behind by those trying to comprehend their fate. They are gripped by the haunting sound of the same Dakota death song the condemned men echoed as they marched single file to a scaffold and faced a crowd of onlookers there to witness an event billed as the largest mass execution in U.S. history, just one day after Christmas in 1862.
Work has started on the second set of 20 letters, with translations proceeding at the rate of one every month. More than 300 people have visited the exhibit which is being expanded. A small portion of the effort eventually will be available on the Internet.
Meanwhile, the project administrators have been approached by Afton Press to publish the translations in a book and a possible video production effort has been noticed outside of Flandreau. The project attracted attention from the Minnesota Historical Society and from officials at South Dakota State University in Brookings, who have expressed an interest in displaying the exhibit, Miyasato said.