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Minnesota names its first Native American poet laureate

Gwen Nell Westerman has taught English at Minnesota State University, Mankato since 1992. A citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, she is an award-winning and nationally published writer who focuses her work on Dakota history and language.

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Gwen Nell Westerman, a citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, is Minnesota's first-ever Native American poet laureate. Sarah Mearhoff / Forum News Service
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ST. PAUL — Minnesota has made history by naming its first Native American poet laureate: Gwen Nell Westerman , an English professor at Minnesota State University Mankato and citizen of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe in South Dakota.

Westerman’s appointment was announced at a Thursday, Sept. 9, news conference at the Minnesota Humanities Center in St. Paul.

Westerman said Thursday that she is honored to take on the role “and as a Dakota woman, to be a presence for healing and understanding and sharing more knowledge and information about our people, all of our people, in the state of Minnesota because we all love this land.”

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a citizen of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, joined Gov. Tim Walz in choosing Westerman for the role. Flanagan said Westerman’s history-making appointment is significant because “Native people are still here, we have always been here, we were in Minnesota before Minnesota was Minnesota, and we will continue to be here long into Minnesota’s future.”

“Part of the thing and the gift that makes us who we are is the arts, our words. It’s poetry. It’s storytelling. It is who we are to our core,” Flanagan continued. “I'm so excited that Minnesotans are going to have the chance to get to know Dr. Westerman more deeply as their poet laureate: A Dakota woman who will be leading the way.”

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As the third-ever poet laureate in Minnesota’s state history, Westerman, through public appearances and engagement, will encourage the public — particularly young Minnesotans — to connect with and appreciate poetry, engage with marginalized populations through poetry, elevate poets and authors in the state and more.

Walz said Thursday that the poet laureate serves as “a beacon of the best that Minnesota has to offer,” inspiring new generations of writers and readers.

“One thing I’m very excited about that I know our new poet laureate will do is taking the gift and the joy of poetry to young people, and being able to do it by showing them the vibrant and diverse tapestry that makes up Minnesota,” Walz said.

Westerman has taught in Minnesota State University Mankato’s English department since 1992, and focuses her award-winning, nationally published writing on Dakota history and language. Her first poetry book, "Follow the Blackbirds," was written in both English and Dakota. Westerman also quilts, with permanent collections of her quilt art housed throughout the Great Plains.

Her father is of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate in South Dakota, and her mother of the Flint District of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. Westerman grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas and has lived in Minnesota since 1991. She received her bachelor’s and master’s in English from Oklahoma State University, and her PhD in English from the University of Kansas.

Mearhoff is a Minnesota Capitol Correspondent for Forum News Service. You can reach her at smearhoff@forumcomm.com or 651-290-0707.
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