Winona State University (WSU) professor Colette Hyman has studied the history of women for decades. Teaching the Women and Gender Studies course at WSU since its inception in 1992, she has made female trials and triumphs her passion. In her latest book “Dakota Women’s Work: Creativity, Culture and Exile,” Hyman details the lives of Dakota women dating back to a time before the arrival of the Europeans. She sheds light on the years of broken treaties, internment camps and the shattered lives of Native Americans for generations after, and she tells it through their artwork. Native organic dyes, quillwork, beading and needlework help tell the story of survival and how art connects the living descendants to the past.
The ten-year project began with a fascination with the legend of Princess Wenonah. The stories behind the famed royal sent Hyman on a journey to find the truth behind her reality.
“I wanted to do something local and within the region,” she said. “I found that there was little about Native American women in the immediate region. Then I realized the whole notion of the Princess and I wanted to see behind the legend. I wanted to know who she really was, what her life was like.”
Having no background in Native American studies, the difficult task of finding a starting point almost made her turn back, she said. The material was touched on during her courses at WSU but she said she was a novice. After much research, Hyman said she found the tragic plight of the Native Americans to be where she had to start.
“I was still figuring out what I wanted to say and finding my voice as an author, but I knew I didn’t want this to be a dispassionate piece of scholarship,” Hyman said. “The topic was silenced for so many generations when people really needed to be forthcoming about it. That was hard because it was something that I knew needed to be done right.”
Detailing the horrors that took place at Crow Creek and other internment camps overwhelmed her, Hyman said. Tribes had to assimilate into European customs and ways of living. The war for land and life in 1862 is briefly described —the aftermath is the turning point in Native American history.
The opening paragraph in chapter six said women returned to their art as a coping mechanism during the rebuilding period after the war. The beadwork and quillwork the women crafted during that struggle brought out the beauty and true culture.
“The work is tangible, you can hold it, you can see it, you can feel it,” she said. “There is value in that, especially when your language is gone, your religious practices are practically gone and your homelands are no longer accessible.”
As the years went on, the scars softened and later generations started to accept the circumstances of the time period and return to the artwork. Women were making more traditional garments and quillwork, moccasins, pouches and the eight-pointed star pattern embroidery they learned from the missionaries. Descendants talked about the past and reabsorbed tribal pride. Hyman said those she talked with weren’t bitter about the devastation during the late 1860s and many began to accept the past.
“They have come to terms with it and said we do what we can and we live for ourselves and for our children,” Hyman said. “The artists I’ve talked to have also said that doing this work has spiritual meaning and connects them to their ancestors. It provides continuity with previous generations.”
Without a partnership with the Dakota people, Hyman said she wouldn’t have been able to complete the book. It has been on book shelves for a little more than a month and although the book is complete, Hyman said the work is never done.
“I’ve gotten to know their history and gathered the information and I’ve kept this ongoing relationship with these people,” she said. “I want to find ways to give back to the community and this book has allowed me to do this. There is much more research to be done. But it’s a part of who I am now.”
“Dakota Women’s Work: Creativity, Culture and Exile” is available at the Book Shelf in Winona.