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Meet Gwen Westerman, Minnesota's Poet Laureate

By Kaomi Lee

This past fall, Governor Walz announced Gwen Westerman as the new Poet Laureate for Minnesota. A longtime professor of English at Minnesota State University-Mankato, Westerman is also the first Indigenous person to hold the title.

From the edge of extinction the buffalo know by heart, the tracks laid down by millions who passed in dream on ocean on a highway and they watched over those held back by fences, just waiting, waiting, waiting

An excerpt from "Follow The Blackbirds," Michigan University Press, (2013)

Westerman never saw herself as a poet laureate before being nominated by two colleagues.

"It wasn't on my list of things to do. It was overwhelming once I realized that I would be the voice for the people of Minnesota; all the people of Minnesota," she said.

No topic is off limits for her pen, though using the Dakota language of her people is foremost, "when there is a good place for it," she said.

"I write about the land, I write about our relationship to the land and to the other creatures that share this space with us. I write about contemporary events," she said.

"I do have a responsibility to respond to what's happening around us, the good things, the troubling things, issues of the environment, social justice, and knowing  our place in the world," Westerman said.

There are some specific duties of the poet laureate. One is to elevate poetry in the state. Another is to engage students and young people to develop their writing and expressing their voices through poetry. A third is to make sure underserved voices are lifted up.

Prairie grasses have roots, twice as long as their height, deep footings that steady them against unremitting winds that sweep against the plains.

Another issue close to her heart is promoting education that is inclusive and antiracist.

"There's a lot of history here in Minnesota, and not a lot of people know the full history," she said.

"There's so much more to our stories as Indigenous peoples than these soundbites that always get focused on; and in general they're always violent and traumatic moments in history," she added.

Westerman was born in Arkansas and raised in Wichita, Kansas, around what she described as a "vibrant, multi-tribal" community. She is an enrolled member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate nation and a first-generation college graduate. She is a co-author of Mni Sota Makoce: The Land of the Dakota and the author of a poetry collection Follow the Blackbirds, written in English and Dakota.

"My mother and father both went to boarding school. They were sent at age five and six, neither of them spoke English [at the time]… all four of my grandparents were fluent speakers [of a heritage language]. When I asked my grandmother to teach me the [heritage] language, my mother's mother, she said, 'No, you need to learn English and learn it well.'"

Westerman was drawn to be a change agent and, after first considering medicine, found education as an arena for her work. She was part of a subcommittee on historic art that reviewed the renovation of the state Capitol.

"We looked at all the art. The paintings, the murals, and talked about what what it meant to say the state Capital is the people's house. Which people did it reflect?"

Ultimately, the panel recommended to remove two large murals in the Governor's conference room to another place that provided more contextual information on the images depicting early settlers and Native Americans - including a bare breasted woman that is culturally incorrect and offensive to many.

As to future writing, Westerman has a love for place and the land.

"I have a deep connection to the plains, this rolling landscape that's so dominant from northern Oklahoma to Manitoba. It's shaped how I view things," Westerman said.

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