Stories transcend words

Dr. Gwen Westerman (Courtesy Photo)

For Dr. Gwen Westerman – university professor, Native American history author, poet, quilt-maker and visual artist – stories extend through time and across generations. Sometimes those stories are hidden. Sometimes they are told from a limited, slanted perspective. And sometimes stories extend beyond words. 

Westerman and a team of storytellers published “Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota,” a history of the Dakota people from the Dakota perspective, including histories and oral traditions, which won a Minnesota Book Award. The book reminds Minnesotans of the heritage embedded in the language of its places, including the name of the state. The title refers to “the land where the waters are so clear they reflect the clouds.” 

Stories seldom told

Westerman grew up in Kansas and in Oklahoma. Minnesota was not part of her story until she accepted a teaching position at Minnesota State University in Mankato in 1996 – or so she thought. 

After Westerman was offered the job, she called her father to announce the news and that she was moving to Mankato. There was silence on the phone line. “You know what they do to Indians there,” he said. “They hang them. We’ll see how long you last.” That was all he said. She learned later about the tragic history of the massacre of 1862. 

As a new frontier state, Minnesota’s white settlers were forcing out the Native population. Food and supplies promised to the Dakota for giving up lands did not materialize. One local trader was quoted as saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.” 

Dakota leader Little Crow led his “enraged and starving” tribe in attacks on frontier settlements, culminating in 2,000 Dakota captured, and 303 sentenced to death by a military court. President Lincoln pardoned all but 38 of them – who were then hanged in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Most of the remaining Dakota fled the state, were sent away, or died of malnourishment. Westerman learned that she descended in her father’s Dakota line from one of the men whose sentence was commuted. 

Some of Westerman’s cousins in Sisseton, South Dakota – where many of the Dakota tribe relocated after the Dakota war – also had not heard the story until they relocated to Minnesota and learned of it from family members. “It’s similar to how children of Holocaust survivors are often not told [their history],” Westerman says. 

Adjusting perspectives

Westerman had an opportunity to provide input in the artistic narrative of Minnesota history when she was appointed to a subcommittee on state capitol art by Gov. Mark Dayton. As a professor of humanities, she knows how art has been removed or altered over time – and its role to provoke conversation. However, she respects the history of visual storytelling. “It was never my opinion that art be destroyed,” she says. “I was there to listen and learn more at meetings.” 

She learned that much of the narrative of Minnesota’s history has been shaped by white perspectives with no thought to the Native history of the state. Her motivating question to the committee was how the Dakota people were represented in the art of the capitol, and how that impacted the viewpoint of the visitors to the capitol. 

Ultimately, two paintings that were overtly racist depictions of the Native population were recommended by the subcommittee to be removed. They have been relocated to a lower-traffic area of the capitol where they will be displayed with supplemental materials about their context. 

Expanding the story

Westerman comes from a line of six generations of quilt-making women and spent a lot of time with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother taught her to sew when she was 12 and Westerman would always give her the scraps from her projects. After Westerman’s daughter was born in 1983, her grandmother presented the newest member of the family with a quilt. She recognized fabric from her shirts and dresses and pieces of projects she had made as a teen. Her grandmother had instilled in her the value of acknowledging her history. Westerman says, “My family valued our heritage and history as Indian people. It is through stories that we come to know who we are.” As a teacher, Westerman wants her students to engage with their sources and have meaningful connections between their learning and the world around them. She wants all generations to know that Dakota people are an integral part of the state’s history, as well as its future. “It’s important to know the stories of all people who came here, and not just the stories of conquest.”

Artwork of white privilege

In June 2016, Dr. Gwen Westerman offered a three-page statement for the Report of the Minnesota Capitol Art Subcommittee, pointing out that the “pride” expressed in the artwork reflected a position of white privilege, not the perspective of a Dakota or Ojibwe viewer. In response to the committee’s report, many changes were made to the visual stories now depicted in the remodeled capitol. Her statement included these words: 

“Just how are Dakota people depicted in the art of the state capitol? They are shown through a constructed myth of the primitive savage in direct conflict with advancing ‘civilization.’ … Half-naked Indians in feathers, animal skins, and blankets from the distant past before Minnesota was a state. 

“In the Senate Chambers, ‘Discoverers and Civilizers Led to the Source of the Mississippi’ is comprised of similar romanticized images … the belief that Native peoples in Minnesota failed to adapt to so-called progress and are barely relevant to the development of the state. 

“Our society remains constrained by images that depict Indians as violent, treacherous and racially inferior, and by a reliance on warfare as the chronological markers of history. [The paintings] lack interpretative text about the actual events portrayed and viewers see only savage Indians engaged in war against white citizens. This is how Dakota people are depicted in the capitol, and it often serves as justification for continued vilification of our Dakota people today.”