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March 17, 2017 10:03 PM

Plains Speaking

On Monday, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks at the Boe Forum on the campus of Augustana University  The forum is hosted by the Center for Western Studies, which is approaching a half-century of serving as a historical and cultural hub for South Dakota and surrounding states.  

The Center for Western Studies is a museum, art gallery, library, publishing house and research facility all under one roof on the campus of Augustana University.  It's home to the relics and records of the earliest inhabitants of the Northern Plains.

"The Yankees that came out of New England and New York and settled here which would have been some of the earliest white settlers, the Native American people, many different tribes, the Lakota and Dakota, both of them coming out of Minnesota," Center for Western Studies Executive Director Harry Thompson said.

Since 1970, the center's mission has been to tell the story of the Northern Plains through art, artifacts and archives.

"Everywhere in the country, you tend to not think that the part of the country where you grew up is as important or as interesting as someplace else and yet visitors from abroad, our Asian neighbors and our European neighbors find the Northern Plains incredibly exotic and interesting," Thompson said.

One of the rarest items on display in the museum is a tablet from Blood Run dating back to the 17th century.  You have to look closely to makeout the carving of a spear piercing a bison used by Native American hunters.

"Before the Oneota people along the Big Sioux River would go out, they would pray and cut on the plaque and there are the incised marks of many knives that go across this,"  Thompson said.

"There are days when I can't believe that I'm getting paid to do research and learn interesting things," Collections Assistant Liz Cisar said.

Liz Cisar interned at the Center for Western Studies while she was a history major.  Now this 2006 Augie graduate is in charge of taking care of the center's research collection. 

"So this set of letters here is from 1860 to 1864..."

Cisar has volumes of rare records at her fingertips, including handwritten letters from a Dakota Territory missionary.

"My dear home, we have just got our tents pitched here about a half-mile west of the battleground."

A century-and-a-half before emails and texting, frontier correspondences present cursive complications to modern-day historians.

"One of the challenges of historical research and archives work can be even being able to read what you're seeing not only because it might be faded but also because they are frequently written in cursive, which can be a challenge, especially for our younger researchers who haven't had much exposure to cursive writing," Cisar said.

The historical material kept at the Center for Western Studies isn't the sole domain of experts and academics.  Everyday researchers, from all ages, can access the archives.

"We've helped people with their own family genealogy. We help Augustana students with projects for class. We've also helped high schoolers or even elementary school students with projects.  I've received calls about Girl Scout projects before," Cisar said.

This is just one box of about 5,000 boxes kept at the Center for Western Studies.  Each box contains old letters, old photographs, newspapers and diaries.  And this massive collection grows every week.

"Mostly donation.  It's usually people approaching us saying I have these letters that great-grandma and great-grandpa wrote back-and-forth when they were courting and we would like to have a permanent home someplace where they can be cared for and also be accessible for researchers," Cisar said.

Once housed in a cramped Augustana library basement, the Center for Western Studies moved into a much larger building all its own back in 2001.  Here, there's plenty of room to store more archives that reveal the epic story of a people and their past and the landscape that's been an inspiration to generation after generation.

"The openness of the Plains never ceases to amaze me," Thompson said.

There are no more tickets available to Neil deGrasse Tyson's Boe Forum talk next week.  But The Center for Western Studies will be hosting it's annual Dakota Conference in April.  The topic will be spirituality on the Northern Plains.  

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