Native Nation Rebuilder: Teresa Peterson

We sat down for an interview with Cohort 8 Rebuilder Teresa Peterson (Upper Sioux Community) to learn more about her education advocacy work and her new book project, Grasshopper Girl. Teresa is actively involved across Native communities and has a long track record of building bridges between communities.

Native Governance Center (NGC): Tell us a little bit about your background, family, and community.

Teresa Peterson, Cohort 8 Rebuilder

Teresa Peterson (TP): I am Sisitowan Wahpetonwan Dakota, and I am a citizen of the Upper Sioux Community. My family resides on the bluff of the Minnesota River Valley, which is southeast of Granite Falls, or the Upper Sioux Community. I live between Upper and Lower Sioux. I speak about the land because it has significance. Where we’re at is really close to an original Dakota campsite–it’s a beautiful area.

Professionally, most of my work has been in Dakota or Native communities. I served as the Tribal Vice Chairwoman of the Upper Sioux Community back in the early 2000s. I’ve worked in both public and charter schools in service to our Native students. More recently, I served as Tribal Planner: first, at the Lower Sioux Indian Community, and then later, in my home community. Today, I continue to work in all different sectors of the Native community. And then I do quite a bit of work with foundations working in, or in service to, Native communities.

NGC: What linkages do you see, if any, between culturally-focused educational curricula and Native student success?

TP: We know from research and literature that people can learn better—you know, it’s how our brain works—when we build on experiences and who people are. Our individual and personal lens is really how we see the world. So for Native communities, it’s not just that individual, but it’s also that community lens. Our cultural ways have to be part of the learning process. To do otherwise really creates separateness and disconnect.

I’ve done some of the research around that. I had the fortune of working with Dakota Wicohan and the University of Minnesota Morris as part of my research and dissertation. We developed this curriculum, and we piloted it in a school with a high Native population. And we wanted to know, does Indigenous-developed curriculum influence a sense of belonging? That’s an actual thing you can measure—sense of belonging. And when I did the literature review on this, I noticed a lot of correlations between sense of belonging and academic success, socioemotional wellness, and health. People have to feel connected to what they’re learning about or engaged in. They have to make some sense of it. So, absolutely, there are linkages, and we know this through research.

NGC: What challenges do Native students in your community face? What are some of the most valuable assets that Native students bring to the classroom?

TP: I really think that we need to think about education differently. To me, what we really need to do is ask young people. We need to ask Native students: what is it that they need? Our education systems are antiquated. I think, innately, our Native students have understood that for a long time. How do you make it relatable? When we know what our gift, talent, or strength is, and when we have people to help support and nurture that—to me, this is what schools could be doing. Not everyone is the same, but everyone has a gift they can share, which creates interdependence. And we have to quit thinking about independence—and I know we have a lot of dependency that’s tied to our paternalistic, history with the government. That still has remnants in our community. But how do we get to that place that really nurtures interdependence, so we all work together really well? When we strengthen that gift that the creator has bestowed upon each one of us, that’s when our community will live well and be more in balance.

NGC: What advice do you have for someone who is just starting out in the field of education and hoping to make an impact?

TP: I think one thing that has helped me is to really listen to young people. Spend some time listening to them. [During my research], we found out that our system of teacher training models is a setup. Because people then think that they have to be the expert. And then, we have a lot of teachers that go through the training and still don’t feel confident teaching the material. And so then they just choose not to do it. So, I feel like, coming into the field and knowing that your role is not to be the expert. And not to dump all of this knowledge into young people. But rather, how can we light a passion for learning in young people? How can we light that fire for them?

NGC: Would you like to add any additional information to this interview?

TP: Tom and Betsy Peacock started Black Bears and Blueberries publishing company. They wanted to create a space for emerging Dakota and Anishinaabe writers and illustrators. [My book] Grasshopper Girl is one of the first books they published. I mean, literally, it just got published maybe two months ago. So, the book is a story within a story. The story has a Dakota trickster in there. And it’s a story my mother heard growing up. And my grandpa heard growing up. My dissertation is all about storytelling, right? And sense of belonging. And so, to me, when we know who we are and where we come from, no matter where we go, we belong. That’s kind of the path I’ve been on is learning more about my ancestral stories because they impact who you are.