Remembering Lisa Elbert, Minnesota linguist and historian

Contributed by Carrie Zeman

Minnesota linguist and historian Elisabeth Karen (Lisa) Elbert died on August 4, 2009 at the age of 35. (Lisa’s obituary appeared in the Ames [IA] Tribune on August 7, 2009.) Elbert’s friends remember her as  remarkable: “… a multi faceted person…a Linguist; a weaver; a teacher; a civil war re-enactor; a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism; a published scholar; a dumpster diver and a champion in the preservation of the Dakota Language.  But, most importantly, she was a caring, giving person and a friend to many.”


In 1997, Elbert graduated from Carlton College, Northfield Minnesota. She went on to earn and earn two Master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota: in U.S. History (2005); and in Teaching English as a Second Language, with an emphasis on Dakota language (2006). At the time of her death, Elbert was a PhD student in Applied Linguistics and Technology at Iowa State University.

Lisa’s empathy for Dakota people was more than an intellectual commitment to help right past wrongs.  As she wrote in American Indian Quarterly, recalling her first encounter with cancer at the age of 28:

Wanna cante etanhan owawa kte. Damakota sni, tka Dakota oyate tewicawahinde. Kodawicawaye. Tohan taku yazanpi kinhan, nakun mayazan. Now I am going to write from the heart. I am not Dakota, but I cherish the Dakota people. They are my friends. If something hurts them, it hurts me.

How does a person-or a people-cope with tragedy and loss? Your world comes crashing down around you, and yet . . . you find that you are still alive. Tragedy and loss cannot be qualified or quantified. They just are. Icannot presume to understand the loss of a people driven from their homes, torn from their families and loved ones. I do not wish to compare pain in the competitive way of fishermen who argue over who caught the biggest fish. Pain, loss, suffering, grief are entirely specific to each individual, as are their coping methods. But I do believe that on a level we are all related-mitakuye owasin–and that those who have suffered have something in common with each other that they can turn to empathy and keep each other company on the road of healing.

Lisa walked the road she found herself on with passion, purpose, and a sense of humor, deprecating her professional resume as “… self-promotional junk I put together when I was trying to find a real job.” History may not be as humble appraising Elbert’s contributions. With Neil McKay and Beth Brown, Elbert was a primary author of Mnisota Dakota Iapi Owayawa the Dakota Language Program website for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University  of Minnesota. With McKay, she edited the third edition of the text Dakota Iape (2002). Elbert wrote its verb companion text, Wicoie Yutocapi Wowapi (2003).

In 2004, American Indian Quarterly published Lisa’s reflection on her participation the 2002 Dakota Commemorative March, “Mending Bodies, Mending Hearts,” quoted above. Intrigued by oral stories related by Dakota women and children who in November 1862 were subject to forced removal from the Minnesota frontier to internment at Fort Snelling before being deported from the state in 1863, Elbert was the first historian to collect documentary evidence of their route to Fort Snelling. Her 2005 Master’s thesis on that subject, was republished as, “Tracing Their Footsteps: The Dakota March of 1862” in Wilson, Waziyatawin, Angela, ed., In the Footsteps of Our Ancestors: The Dakota Commemorative Marches of the 21st Century. St. Paul: Living Justice Press, 2006.

Lisa lived the revitalization of the Dakota language: volunteering as a weekly Dakota Language teacher in the Mendota Mdewankanton Community; participating in the Dakota Commemorative Marches; helping plan Minnesota Indigenous Language and Dakota Language Preservation Conferences; presenting at international Stabilizing Indigenous Languages Symposia in 2005 and 2006; and receiving honorable mention for her presentation “Marking Time in the Dakota Language” presented at CIC American Indian Studies Graduate Student Symposium.

Saturday October 3, 2009 at 3:00 PM Lisa’s friends and family will gather at the Gideon Pond House to celebrate her life. The event is open to the public. For more information, contact Diane at 651-983-6363. The Pond House is located at 401 E. 104th St., Bloomington, MN 55420 between Nicolett and Portland Avenues.

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