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Students Search for 'Authenticity' Over J-Term

In the late 1870s, Clara Kerbach served as an administrator for St. Mary’s School, a boarding school for Native American girls in southern Dakota Territory.

As white settlers made their way to the Plains and established farms and communities, Kerbach played an important role at a school committed to educating students from one culture about the customs, traditions and faiths of another.

Yet, little has been known about her. Where was she from? What drove her? How did she impact the lives of students?

Today, thanks to a handwritten letter dated January 16, 1878, and the work of students in the J-Term course “The Search for Authenticity,” Kerbach’s story is finally seeing the light of day – along with the stories of other influential-yet-unknown figures of the Northern Plains.

The Course
True to the spirit of J-Term, a four-week session designed for curricular exploration and enrichment that gives students the opportunity to study abroad and partake in internships and special one-time-topic classes, “The Search for Authenticity” sets out to examine the concept of authenticity in scholarship and popular culture.

Students in the course, taught by Dr. Harry Thompson, executive director of the Center for Western Studies, spent the first half of the course engulfed in an in-depth study of authenticity and viewing four concept-related films, including a documentary on legendary explorers Lewis and Clark which featured entries from the pair’s journals; and “Dear America,” a documentary on the Vietnam War, featuring excerpts from solider letters, vintage footage from the battlefield and period music.

They also toured the Pettigrew Home, had a guided tour of Sen. Richard F. Pettigrew's house and spent time examining the use of primary documents – letters, diaries and memories – chronicling life on the Overland Trail in the 1850s.

The second half of the course was spent analyzing historic letters from the Center for Western Studies’ archives.

Assigned two-to-three letters each, the students set to work piecing together historic puzzles, each illustrating what life was like on the Northern Plains during different periods of history.

Forget Google or Wikipedia
In most cases, students had to discover the history on the letter writers and/or the context of the topics they chronicled, by physically researching through the archives.

From there, historic storylines emerged. By transcribing and interpreting the letters, the students could extend those lines for future researchers.

“History is a continual process of research. By examining these original documents, we strive to recover the past and learn even more,” said Thompson.

Pictured Above: Abby DeGroot, a student in the J-Term course, "The Search for Authenticity," presents findings from her research on Tuesday, Jan. 24.