Minnesota Native reading project teaches 'present tense' of Indigenous lives

Person speaks at podium
Odia Wood-Krueger at an August 2023 Understand Native Minnesota Educator Academy event (professional development) at Mystic Lake Center.
Courtesy of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

Updated: 8:10 a.m.

A book that tells the stories of the Upper Sioux Community may help students across the state learn more about Indigenous communities in Minnesota. Another tribal nation, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, is providing the books for free.

The aim is to improve the narrative about Native people in Minnesota by helping teachers across the state re-think lessons for K-12 students. “Our number one goal is narrative change,” said Odia Wood-Krueger, a former teacher who consults on education projects nationally. She wanted teachers to think about relationships with Indigenous neighbors and “understand and rebuild.”

The book giveaway is a part of the Understand Native Minnesota campaign, born out of a series of conversations that began as tribal leaders in Minnesota parsed through data from the Reclaiming Native Truth report, from a Colorado-based group which had conducted a nationwide survey to “dispel America’s myths and misconceptions” about Native Americans. 

For the past several years, the campaign has offered teacher training, curriculum and opportunities to meet the state’s Indigenous Education for All standards. Last year, the campaign started a One Read project and gave away a couple thousand copies of a popular young adult book.  

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The book they chose this year is "Voices from Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers," a collection of short stories by Teresa Peterson and her uncle Walter "Super" LaBatte about the Upper Sioux community near Granite Falls. 

The book's stories impart values, entertain, deliver heroes and tell of place. They have helped Dakota people make sense of the past.  

side by side of two authors and a book
Teresa Peterson (left) and Walter Labatte, Jr. (right) authors of Voices from Pejuhutazizi, Dakota Stories and Storytellers.
Courtesy photos

LaBatte says the Upper Sioux Community is profoundly shaped by the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War, and the tribe’s exile from Minnesota. He says the book offers an intimate, balanced portrait of the community in the years that followed. 

“There are stories in there, personal stories, dealing with the outcome, the after affects, the exile out of Minnesota. My grandma eventually made it to Canada and found refuge there,” said LaBatte. “So, in that effect, it personalizes history. You could read about history in a scholarly historical context, but you don’t get that personal thing, and that often touches the soul of a person.” 

LaBatte adds he's happy the book, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press last year, was selected for this year’s One Read, which will boost its profile.

“I don’t want to be invisible anymore,” said Labatte. 

His niece, and co-author, Teresa Peterson said writing and organizing the book has helped shape her own identity as Dakota woman. 

“When I read the story of my great-great grandmother. I had such a deeper understanding of who I am and where I come from and that is the power of story,” said Peterson. “When you know who you are and who you belong to no matter where you go, you belong.” 

She sees the book as a framework for students to bring their own stories into classrooms. 

Person presents at a podium
Rebecca Crooks-Stratton at an April 2023 Understand Native Minnesota Educator Academy event (professional development) at Mystic Lake Center.
Courtesy of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community

“How do you welcome all people into this conversation of ‘What’s your story?’ Because I feel like when we do that that’s how we break down all these misunderstandings, this assumption-making, prejudice, all those things that lead to that… lack of belong-ness and invisibility.”

“Everyone has a story, and everyone matters."  

The campaign gave away 10,000 copies of the book in just six hours last month to more than 400 educators. Excited by the success of the project, the Understand Native Minnesota campaign made another 10,000 books available to school districts last week.  

The books can’t arrive soon enough for Rebecca Crooks-Stratton. The secretary-treasurer of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, Crooks-Stratton said when her daughter was in the 4th grade she was assigned to pick a Native American tribe and report on the ways people lived.   

“It was all past tense,” says Crooks-Stratton. “I was looking at the project and encouraging my daughter to say, ‘Why do we have to focus on the past?’ ‘Why do we have to be relegated to the past?’ We are modern Native people.” 

Correction (Oct. 10, 2023): A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Odia Wood-Krueger’s name. The story has been updated.