GRANITE FALLS, Minn. — Stories once told as families gathered on long, cold winter nights inspire Teresa Peterson.
They are the stories of the Dakota people, and were passed from generation to generation as part of an oral tradition. Some stories keep the history of the people. Others tell tales to teach lessons, much like Aesop’s fables.
Peterson, a Dakota from the Upper Sioux Community, has penned her first children’s book, based in part on a story long shared in her family. The “Grasshopper Girl” tells of Unktomi, the Dakota trickster, and the lessons learned from the trickster by a young girl. That young girl is “Psipsicadan Wicinyanna,” the Grasshopper Girl, the Dakota name for Peterson’s mother, Joyce LaBatte.
“This is a story within a story,” said Peterson of her new book. “It lifts up the idea and tradition of storytelling and how important that is.”
Peterson is committed to preserving the Dakota language and culture. She serves on the board of directors for Dakota Wichohan, which helps young people learn the language and culture. She uses Dakota words in the book, and includes a glossary.
“Grasshopper Girl” is illustrated by Jordan Rodgers, a student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. She is Lakota and a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation. Her style of illustration is very popular with young people, Peterson said. She especially appreciates how well the artist has portrayed the book’s characters who are based on members of her family.
Peterson earned a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and that played a role in her decision to author this work. She wrote a longer, adult version of the “Grasshopper Girl” as part of her doctoral dissertation. She said peers who reviewed it told her “this could be a children’s story.”
Her dissertation and research focused on how stories influence a sense of belonging, and how important that is.
During the days of subsistence living, the Dakota traditionally shared their stories as they joined in the cold of winter, Peterson said. It’s different today. More often, parents pass these stories on to their children at home.
Many know the stories of the trickster or Unktomi, although versions may vary among different bands by location, she explained.
Peterson said she did not enjoy reading as a young girl. She now understands why.
“Dick and Jane are pretty darn boring,” she said. “I couldn’t relate to them.”
She wanted to create a children’s book that would be relevant to young people who come from diverse backgrounds. But this is not aimed only for Dakota or other indigenous readers, she is quick to point out. “All people benefit from diverse authored books,” she said.
“This is part of my mother’s story and I think it’s really important that, when she went to school, (there were) not stories about Dakota people,” Peterson said.
Things may be a little bit better today, but the reality is this: There are not many children’s books available in schools or libraries that are authored by Dakota or other Native people, Peterson said.
“Grasshopper Girl” helps fill that void and, she hopes, offers a story that may interest some young people in reading. The book is written for a second-grade reading level.
Her book is published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing. It is a Native-owned, nonprofit launched by Thomas Peacock and Elizabeth Ablert-Peacock with the intent of developing books for Native children by Native authors. He is an author and member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She is a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe.
Peterson credits both with encouraging her in this work. Thanks to their interest, she is working on a second book with the idea of making the “Grasshopper Girl” into a series.
Peterson said she is also especially grateful to the support of the Upper Sioux Community. It has purchased copies of the book for all of the community’s children.
Peterson said her mother has been “kind of quiet” about being part of a book, and just a bit in awe of being the focus of attention because of it. As the fourth of eight children, her mother was not accustomed to being the center of attention, Peterson said.
“It’s a little bit of a tribute to her,” she said of the book.
Although the book was only recently published, Peterson has already offered readings at locations from Redwood Falls to Duluth. She will be doing so again at locations in the Twin Cities on Sunday.
Her work will be celebrated locally Saturday, when Pioneer Public TV hosts a reading by Peterson from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Granite Falls Library.