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Minnesota teachers now have access to more training and resources about Native American history and culture than ever before.

The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community is wrapping up a $5 million philanthropic campaign that has funded grants, research, curriculum and workshops for teachers across the state — part of a national movement to boost education of Indigenous history and culture.

The Understand Native Minnesota campaign, which launched in 2019, added resources for K-12 schools, aiming to change misperceptions of Native Americans for generations to come, said Rebecca Crooks-Stratton, former secretary-treasurer of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), based in Prior Lake.

"I hope for years to come, we see more and more of a shift," she added. "I think it's important that tribes in Minnesota are not invisible and their contributions are seen and valued."

In March, SMSC is disbursing microgrants to teachers and holding a final educator course — workshops that have trained nearly 600 teachers on how to teach Native American topics in their classrooms. In January, SMSC gave out the final round of grants in the campaign totaling $2.3 million to five Minnesota nonprofits, and released two new guidebooks.

All of the initiatives focus on reshaping narratives and attitudes about Native Americans by teaching students about modern tribal governments, contemporary history and contributions.

"We deal every day with the misconceptions and being relegated to the past," Crooks-Stratton said. "We've definitely moved the needle a little bit, especially for educators."

Minnesota is home to 11 tribal nations, seven of which are Ojibwe and four are Dakota. No other tribe locally or nationally has taken on such a large educational campaign like this, Crooks-Stratton said.

SMSC, which owns and operates Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake, has become one of the top philanthropists in Minnesota and one of the largest philanthropic benefactors in Indian Country nationally. In 2019, the tribe gave out $15 million in donations, according to its annual report. The SMSC's government and various enterprises are collectively the largest employer in Scott County.

Nationwide, philanthropy benefiting Native Americans has amounted to only 0.4% of annual grant dollars, even though they make up more than 2% of the U.S. population, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy.

"It is hard overall for Indigenous-led work to find the kind of support that they need," said Maggie Lorenz, executive director of Wakan Tipi Awanyankapi, a St. Paul nonprofit formerly known as Lower Phalen Creek Project that received more than $500,000 from SMSC. "This is really huge for us."

The new grant will help develop curriculum and exhibits at the organization's Wakan Tipi Center, a cultural and environmental interpretive center scheduled to open in 2025 at Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

"These are things that the community has been asking for and educators have been asking for," Lorenz said. "This just adds so much to our ability to further our mission."

In 2021, guests placed tobacco on the land that will house the new Wakan Tipi Center, scheduled to open in 2025.
In 2021, guests placed tobacco on the land that will house the new Wakan Tipi Center, scheduled to open in 2025.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

New resources

Understand Native Minnesota is SMSC's second large-scale campaign after Seeds of Native Health, a national program started in 2015 to reduce disparities in Native American communities' access to healthy foods.

In January, two new guidebooks were released. "A Guide to Reliable Native American-Related Teaching Resources," by Odia Wood-Krueger, provides teaching resources. The "Minnesota Native American Essential Understandings for Educators" guide, directed by Ramona Kitto Stately of We Are Still Here Minnesota — a network of Native American leaders that breaks down negative narratives about Native Americans — provides details on Native people and tribal governments.

The guides discuss the history and the unique cultures and values of Dakota and Ojibwe people, how modern tribal governments operate and ways Native Minnesotans have contributed to society.

"The publications are pretty groundbreaking," Crooks-Stratton said. "I think both of them will be a wonderful resource for years to come."

The new materials aim to fill a longstanding void in Minnesota schools for resources vetted by tribes. In 2021, a SMSC report — the first of its kind done in Minnesota — found that most K-12 teachers in Minnesota don't have the confidence or tools needed to teach their students about Native Americans.

"Teachers were eager to partner with us," Crooks-Stratton added.

Last year, when SMSC offered teachers 10,000 free copies of "Voices From Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers" — a collection of stories from five generations of one Minnesota family — they sold out in six hours and added another 10,000 free copies.

"I've been really happy that so many people have engaged with this campaign," Crooks-Stratton said. "I hope this helps change that perspective and people understand we are still here."