A tradition of storytelling brings family's stories over generations together for a newly published book
Storytelling has always been a part of Walter LaBatte Jr.’s life. Growing up in the Upper Sioux Community, Walter says that there were many childhood evenings spent listening to his father’s stories. “When I grew up, we didn’t have electricity, and so the only entertainment we had was my dad telling us stories,” Walter recalls. “We have a mythical creature called Unktomi, which means spider, and he’s a trickster. There are tons and tons of stories and he would tell us those Unktomi stories at night. These stories had morals in them. Because he was a trickster, he would do bad things, and through telling those stories they were sending a message how to act, how to behave.”
Those weren’t the only stories Walter heard over the years, as he recalls many moments of hearing storytelling from the Elders, as well as from his own grandfather, Fred Pearsall, telling stories he had heard from the Elders. “We didn’t know for a long time that my Grandfather had written down some of the stories. When he died, I remember all of the adults in the family and extended family - their common lament was that they wished they would have written down Grandpa’s stories. We didn’t know that he did. My aunt found them and made a book of them. Self-published it,” he recalls.
It was a combination of all of those stories that gave Walter’s niece Teresa Peterson the idea to re-work all of Fred Pearsall’s stories, her uncle Walter’s stories, and her aunt Cerisse’s stories into one book. Teresa originally approached the Minnesota Historical Society with the idea to re-work Fred’s stories that were in the Historical Society’s possession nearly 20 years ago.”My intentions were to clean it up, and I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to do it. I didn’t want to re-write the stories, just to create some kind of framework. I knew I felt a really deep connection, especially to my great-great grandmother’s stories, and they said they were interested,” Teresa says. Eventually, a different idea began to form, and Peterson approached her uncle Walter to ask him to share his stories. “I could see a theme throughout all of his random stories. They were about storytelling, and storytelling is about land, and it’s about values, and transmitting values, and traditions,” Teresa says. And so she submitted a proposal to the Minnesota Historical Society with her new idea, and after a lengthy process that included her ideas being brought before the Historical Society’s Native Advisory Committee, a contract was agreed upon.
For the next years, the niece and uncle would go through the stories, organizing and writing, with Teresa narrating the beginning and the end to tie the theme of the stories together. Now complete, the book, titled Voices from Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers, is available on Amazon in both softcover and Kindle editions. The stories inside begin with Walter’s grandfather Fred’s recollections of stories from Elders, including his own personal experiences as a white man who lived 50 years with the Dakota people after marrying his wife. “He became fluent in the language and worked for the government translating. And that way, he was exposed to the Elders of that day, in the early 1900s. A lot of the stories have to do with the time after the 1862 War. My great-grandmother, his mother-in-law told him a lot of stories of her experiences post 1862, escaping Minnesota and roaming over North Dakota and Montana following the buffalo and finally settling into Canada. When she was older she decided to move back here where she died in 1927,” Walter explains.
The stories move into other time periods, including stories from Walter’s childhood, current times, and his recollections of stories from the Elders. “When I was growing up listening to these Elders talk, none of them ever said this is important, now remember this. I don’t think that they even had a sense that I was listening or that I was recording this in my head,” he said. “If somebody asked me when I was 40 years old if I knew of any stories, I would have said no way. I reached a certain age and then these stories are just falling out of my head. I can remember this from 50 years ago rather than what happened last week. So there’s an interesting phenomenon about memory, how we store these memories in our brain for 50 years and then all of a sudden they start coming out. I don’t know if it’s the elders choosing me to share the stories. If that’s true, then I feel honored that they would choose me to be the one to carry the stories on.”
Teresa also included stories of her own in the book. “I tell people this was a healing journey for me. The role storytelling has played for me - these stories were really absent from my upbringing, my education. Stories really shaped who I am today and filled in the gaps that I was missing, and really, in essence, provided a sense of belonging for me,” she says. “I got to spend a lot of time over the years with my great-aunt Cerisse, and interview her and hear about her life and her sisters, one of them being my Grandma, and I think that was really enjoyable and something I really treasure. I made the commitment to her many years ago. She died two weeks before her 101st birthday, so when we finally did this, I say in the acknowledgments, I hope you can see this from above.”
Some excerpts from the back cover of the book provide more context into the pages inside:
From the 1970s:
“My cousins and I rode horses up and down the deer and people trails, bringing them to the creek to quench their thirst…As long as we ate our egg-and-Spam sandwiches and were back by the evening, we could be feral children, exploring the hills and valleys along the Minnesota River.”
~Utuhu Cistinna Win/Teresa Peterson
From recent days:
“It isn’t unusual to see Germans at summer powwows. On several occasions, I have come up to them in my dance regalia and in German asked if they come from Germany. At first there is this stunned second or two of silence, and I can see that their eyes and their ears are in conflict.”
~Wasicunhdinazin/Walter “Super” LaBatte Jr.
For Walter, the process provided an enjoyable experience. “I got to read the stories all over again, and that was enjoyable. I’m interested in seeing what the reaction from people is, and what questions they have. It’s really just a cultural book. There’s no political dissertation or diatribes, it’s just simply telling stories. I’m only speaking for myself and my Grandfather and speaking for what our experiences are. We don’t pretend that this is the Dakota story for that this encompasses all Dakota people, but this book is a small aspect of Dakota life,” he says.
For Teresa, the book was an important way to promote sharing stories. “I have a piece in the epilogue that really challenges people to think about what their own individual stories are. It’s really important for us to share our stories, and I think part of the process, too, is disrupting master narratives. I think a lot of my education and mainstream education has been about master narratives and sometimes our education systems don’t really provide a sense of belonging when we can’t make connections to it personally. I feel like stories have a way of doing that, and they have a way of connecting all of us at a human level. Stories provide that understanding. My hope is that people share stories, and understand that we all have a story to share that’s a part of our American history. Whatever kind of forum you’re in, each of us have something to contribute,” she says.
This book is the second time Teresa has been published. She has also published a book titled Grasshopper Girl, which is a children’s book published by Black Bears and Blueberries Publishing. “It has kind of the same theme, but it’s on a children’s level. It’s about our trickster Unktomi, and he’s telling a story within a story. Parts of it are historical fiction but parts of it are accurate in terms of history. It’s a little bit about my mom growing up,” she says. Additionally, Teresa has poetry published in The Racism Issue of the Yellow Medicine Review, and has been a contributor to Voices Rising: Native Women Writers.
For more information about Voices from Pejuhutazizi: Dakota Stories and Storytellers or Teresa’s writing, visit her website at teresapetersonwords.com.