Center for Western Studies hosts Dakota Conference



On April 26 and 27, the 45th annual Dakota Conference helped the Center for Western Studies live up to its name.

Each year, the Center for Western Studies (CWS) hosts the Dakota Conference, a symposium where scholars can present information related to the annual theme.

This year’s theme, The Spanish Northern Plains, was chosen because of CWS director Harry Thompson’s own personal observations, as well as input from two or three trusted advisees. The themes are chosen at least one to two years in advance.

“The first Europeans into the Great Plains were the Spanish,” Thompson said. Now, as meat processing plants are beginning to open up throughout the Midwest, “there are a lot of jobs for recent immigrants who happen to be Hispanic or Latino.

“As is the case with history, there is this reemergence of lost culture.”

The Dakota Conference is the only Northern Plains conference held every year.

Presenters for the conference submit their piece early for approval. Participating members may give lectures, lead debates, sit on a panel and field audience questions.

This year’s conference brought 280 attendees to Augustana’s CWS over the two days.

Two such attendees were freshman Kat Van Gerpen and her mother, Patty, who both went to the conference to see Kat’s grandmother and Patty’s mother, Jean Rahjas, speak about Neamiah Ordway, the governor of the Dakota Territory.

Rahjas was a sixth grade teacher for 23 years, and this year marks her 26th Dakota Conference presentation.

“I need to contribute something if I’m going to come to it,” Rahjas said. “It’s a way of advancing yourself in your learning.”

Rahjas was one of over 75 presenters, a number that also included Augustana freshman Kate Carlson in its ranks.

Carlson first wrote a paper for her “Finding the Great Plains” class last semester, a class Thompson teaches.

Her topic, Diversity in the Great Plains, focused on the Hispanic and Latino population, a paper which meshed well with this year’s theme and which prompted Thompson to encourage Carlson to present at the Dakota Conference.

“I focused on [Iowa], since I knew more about my area,” Carlson said. She has also observed a recent influx of Hispanic residents in her home neighborhoods. “Big changes are happening there.”

Carlson was competing with fellow undergraduates for a potential cash prize. All presenters are eligible for various awards. Rahjas received the Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Preservation of the Cultural Heritage of the Northern Plains in 2006 for her presentation on the impact of the New Deal on South Dakota.

But Rahjas doesn’t come for the awards. “I enjoy every part of it,” Rahjas said. And, she said in the end it’s an opportunity to take in a little more information about the world around you.