MSU's Westerman named Minnesota poet laureate

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Sep. 9—MANKATO — Gwen Westerman, an English professor at Minnesota State University, is the first Native American to be appointed as Minnesota's poet laureate.

Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan made the announcement Thursday.

"It is an honor to serve as the poet laureate and help elevate poetry across the state," Westerman said in a statement. "I am excited for the opportunity to share the beauty of poetry and to engage and celebrate the voices of all Minnesotans."

She is co-author of "Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota," which won two Minnesota Book Awards and an AASLH Leadership in History Award. Her poetry collection "Follow the Blackbirds" is written in English and Dakota, one of her heritage languages.

Her poems and essays can be found in POETRY, Yellow Medicine Review, Water-Stone Review, Natural Bridge and at poetryfoundation.org

Westerman has long been involved in efforts to increase the knowledge about Native Americans, particularly the Dakota.

Mankato was the site of the mass execution of 38 Dakota warriors following the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War and has been the center of reconciliation efforts for many years.

Earlier this year, Westerman was appointed to a committee at MSU to discuss the future of a large statue of Abraham Lincoln that is displayed prominently in the student union.

Over the years there have been calls to remove the statue because Lincoln gave the order for the execution of the Dakota in Mankato and because of his other policies toward Native Americans. While more than 300 Dakota were originally sentenced to death, Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 of them.

The committee has advocated for more comprehensive education around Lincoln's impact to be included with the 7-foot-tall statue and to possibly put it in a less prominent place.

Westerman told The Free Press in April that most people don't think about the impact Lincoln had on the people who were not hanged. The rest of the men and their families were expelled from Mankato and sent to a prison in Davenport, Iowa.

"I'm not minimizing the hanging of the 38," Westerman said. "But we also need to take into consideration the descendants of the men who were spared and how that impacted generations of people."

According to her biography, Westerman is a first-generation college student who had no intentions of teaching when she arrived at Oklahoma State University, but an elective class in American literature altered her trajectory forever. She changed her major in her senior year from chemistry to English and focused her sights on literature and technical communication.

After seven years in corporate communications, Westerman came to MSU to teach technical communication, literature, writing and humanities.

A fiber artist, Westerman has works in the permanent collections of the Minnesota Historical Society, the Great Plains Art Museum, the University Art Galleries at the University of South Dakota and the Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota in Mankato.

Walz said in a statement that Westerman's talents will benefit Minnesota. "The poet laureate serves as a beacon for the best of Minnesota and the people who live here, inspiring generations of poets and readers and advocating for young people to use their voices."

Flanagan, a Native American, said Westerman's perspective is important for the state.

"Native people are still here. We have always been here — before Minnesota was Minnesota. And we will continue to be here, long into Minnesota's future. Dr. Westerman's tenure as poet laureate is a chance for us to reflect on our shared history — and imagine the future together," Flanagan said in a statement.

The governor said the Minnesota Humanities Center has for several months led an effort to define and reinvigorate the role of Minnesota's poet laureate, seeking applicants ready to be highly active and visible in the community.

Founded in 1971, the Humanities Center is an independent nonprofit affiliated with and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"The world is never the same after a good poem has been shared as a beautiful poem can change the shape of our understanding of each other and our society," Kevin Lindsey, CEO of the Minnesota Humanities Center, said in a statement.

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