Upper Sioux Community authors give Dakota stories the spotlight in 'Voices from Pejuhutazizi'
Teresa Peterson and Walter "Super" LaBatte of the Upper Sioux Community offer a treasure of Dakota stories passed down from the generations, as well as their own, in their book, "Voices From Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers."
UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY, Minnesota — Walter “Super” LaBatte Jr. had no electricity in his home during most of his childhood years.
“So our entertainment was my dad telling stories at night,” LaBatte told his audience at the Grinder coffeehouse in Granite Falls on March 12.
The many stories he heard are alive today in “Voices From Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers.”
The 195-page book, published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press, is the work of LaBatte and his niece, Teresa Peterson, both of the Upper Sioux Community. They worked together over the course of 10 years to collect the stories handed generation to generation.
The book also comprises stories of their own of growing up as part of the Upper Sioux Community, or Pejuhutazizi, "the people who dig the yellow medicine."
The authors were aided greatly in this endeavor by their late ancestor, Fred Pearsall. Sometime around 1910, Peterson said her great-grandfather began to write down the stories he heard as part of the Dakota community. He continued to do so for decades. Pearsall’s daughter typed the stories and self-published a book to preserve them in 1983.
At the gathering in March, LaBatte told his audience one of his best-known stories. It was made into a short feature by Pioneer Public Television. It tells of how a tame pelican saved a small encampment of Dakota from a war party on Lake Traverse.
Most of the encampment's men were away on a buffalo hunt when the war party was spotted on the water. The frightened residents fled.
The invaders went to attack the chief’s tipi first. They found a pelican wearing a war bonnet inside it.
The attackers retreated. The Dakota suspect that the attackers felt the Dakota had better medicine than they, since the chief had been able to change himself into a pelican.
Some of the stories in "Voices From Pejuhutazizi" tell of the challenges the people knew.
Pearsall recorded the story of a buffalo hunt in the early 1850s in South Dakota, during which the Dakota were caught on the open plains by a blizzard. It arrived too suddenly to erect their tent. They took cover under the flattened covering and survived two days of the storm with only the light clothing they wore on the hunt and a few blankets.
Some stories tell of the impact of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862 on their family members, who were forced to flee their native land. One account tells of surviving a close encounter in 1863 when General Alfred Sully and his troops rode west in search of those who had fled Minnesota.
Family history provides belonging, sense of place
LaBatte grew up in the Upper Sioux Community, and listened intently to the stories he remembers and tells so well. Peterson grew up near St. Cloud, and learned about her Dakota heritage through visits to family in the Upper Sioux Community.
As she grew into adulthood, she came to appreciate her heritage and to realize the importance of stories and seek them out. She visited with family and elders to learn all she could.
Stories convey traditions and cultural practices, she told her audience. They provide belonging and a sense of place. They entertain.
Both authors know the importance of their heritage. Peterson is a co-founder of Wicohan. Its mission is to revitalize the Dakota language and life ways.
LaBatte is known as a Dakota storyteller, and for his traditional Dakota art. He crafts beaded moccasins and Wacipi drums. He makes his own brain-tanned buckskin. His works have made their way to places around the globe, as his niece points out in their book.
LaBatte said it was his desire to dance in traditional Wacipi celebrations that led him to the artwork for which he is so respected today. Lacking funds at the time, he at first attempted to sew his own garments for dancing.
He struggled to push needles through tough leather, and showed his bandaged fingers to a fellow dancer while describing his challenge. The dancer suggested that he use instead the soft and supple buckskin that Dakota elders have always produced using the brain-tanning method.
LaBatte asked his dad if he knew how to brain-tan a hide.
“He thought it was a ridiculous question to ask. ‘Of course I know how to make buckskin,’” LaBatte said. “I was 40 years old at the time. That was how I started.”
“We all have stories in our families,” Peterson told her audience. “Sometimes they get lost. (This is) a call to action to collect, save your stories.”