ROCHESTER - Coen Wagner was a digging machine outside Dakota Middle School last Friday. And it was welcomed.

The 8-year-old helped plant in the school's medicine garden last fall — crops that included tobacco, sage, wild strawberry, skunk cabbage and more, all of which the Dakota people used long before white settlers took over the land. Coen was just as excited to dig through the garden last week, adding even more plants this time around.

"It's just really interesting to know more about stuff like powwows and Native Americans," said Coen, a Navajo student at Rochester Public Schools.

Native students in Rochester are getting more opportunities to learn about and share their cultures thanks to a renewed district initiative. Over the past few years, district officials have created more Native events, more supports for Native students and more Native lessons to share throughout the district.

There's the medicine garden, which gives students a sense of history and ecology all in one. There's ongoing Native events, from "decolonize the diet" cooking courses to more family nights to learn about each Native culture in the district. And Rochester's Native education staffers have even more planned for next school year.

"There's representation and visibility not just for students but for Rochester as a whole," said Amelia Cordell, the district's Native education coordinator. "It definitely has a long way to go, but it's starting, which is exciting."

Native education programs have been in public schools throughout Minnesota since the 1970s, but those programs often aren't very big. When Native educator Tucker Quetone came to Rochester in the 1990s, the district had a small grant to run education programming.

"We have kids that represent almost 50 different tribes just in Rochester," Quetone said. "It was important to form our own community and try to support each other wherever we come from."

The program ebbed over the years, but it took a concerted effort among residents in the district to restart Native education opportunities about a decade ago. Native communities across the state have since boosted funding for more Native curriculum, including a recent $5 million campaign from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community.

Rochester schools got serious about Native education when they hired Cordell in 2022, while Quetone works as a part-time education liaison. Since then, they've massively expanded the program.

Native students from across the district met together a few times over the last school year. Cordell is planning a Native student council starting this fall to deepen those ties. More medicine gardens are getting set up at other schools in Rochester. This fall, Century High School will pilot a Dakota culture and language course that will likely become a Dakota language program within the next few years.

It's good news for parents like Coen's mom, Corinna Sabaque, who routinely takes Coen to powwows across the state so he can showcase his grass-dancing skills.

He brought his powwow regalia — the clothes he wears while dancing — to class last fall to show his friends the traditional dances he does. While Coen is learning how to dance the Dakota way, Sabaque said she was happy her son could still connect with his Native roots even if they were far from other Navajo families where she grew up in New Mexico.

"We still have that sense of community by being connected to other Native families," she said.

Laura Fisher has two students in Rochester schools (a third just graduated high school). Fisher's Cherokee grandmother often hid her Native culture, though she made sure to pass down lessons to Fisher. Fisher's children now have more opportunities to learn not only about Dakota traditions but their own heritage.

"It's something that makes them proud," Fisher said. "These programs go across nations."