Weather Forecast


Protecting her culture

@cutline:St. Olaf College graduate Whitney White made a video to help preserve Prairie Island Indian Community history for members of future generations, including her 7-year-old daughter Hailey, shown here. -- photo by Mike Longaecker/Republican Eagle

Sometimes, stories just fade away.

That bothers Whitney White -- especially when it happens at the Prairie Island Indian Community.

"A lot of our elders aren't passing down the culture and the history as much any more," the 22-year-old said.

White is combating the issue her own way. She made it the core of her senior project at St. Olaf College -- a video collection of interviews with tribal elders.

"If no one's stepping up and doing this, then it's my responsibility to myself, my history and my daughter," she said. "I'm helping to preserve our identity as a people."

White interviewed four tribal elders, then edited the entire film herself into a project she named "Prairie Island Dakota Oral History."

American Indian history has traditionally been passed along orally, and "has come down well through the elders," said Goodhue County Historical Society Director Char Henn.

"They have, through oral history, done a real good job maintaining their traditions and passing them down," she said.

Still, some parts inevitably get lost, Henn said. She called White's video approach "the new generation of oral history."

Other high-tech efforts, including a device that helps translate English into Dakota language phrases, have helped preserve Prairie Island culture in recent years.

White said the issue was crystallized for her when she went to interview former Tribal Council member Curtis Campbell Jr. He went into the hospital later that day.

White never saw him alive again.

"That just shows you how important my project is," the 2005 Red Wing High School graduate said. "These elders aren't going to be here forever."

Two more elders related a generations-old story to her. According to the story, the tribe would one day receive a significant gift. They predicted the gift would arrive on the site where Treasure Island Resort and Casino -- a venture that has been a windfall for the tribe -- now stands.

The project helped earn White the Ken Bonde award, which is given to St. Olaf graduates who "pull all the parts of their education together," said Susan Carlson, program coordinator at the college's Center for Integrative Studies.

The Center for Integrative Studies allows select students to design their own majors. White, who selected Native American studies, received her degree in May.

She continues to study the Dakota language at the University of Minnesota and is contemplating graduate work -- possibly focusing on colonial America -- in the coming months.

White said she would also like to join any efforts to form a Prairie Island museum.

"We are very proud of Whitney and her educational accomplishments," Prairie Island Tribal Council President Ron Johnson said in a statement. "The special interest she has taken in the Prairie Island Indian Community's history and the Dakota language is an inspiration to us."

As she moves forward, White said she wants to keep pointing the camera at Prairie Island's elders. First, more elders. Then, the following generation. Maybe youth after that, she said.

"I like to listen," she said. "And I think it's worth recording."