The gap in Minnesota school books became glaringly evident to Rebecca Crooks-Stratton when her daughter's social studies project asked what American Indians eat and where they live — a lesson rooted in archaic facts about tipis and men hunting on horseback.

"We're relegated to the past," said Crooks-Stratton, the secretary-treasurer of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), based in Prior Lake. "There's no modern Indians in textbooks. … That imagery reinforces we don't exist anymore."

A new $5 million philanthropic campaign by the SMSC aims to change that narrative by funding resources, curriculum and training for teachers and school administrators across the state.

Crooks-Stratton on Thursday announced a three-year initiative, Understand Native Minnesota, at the National Indian Education Association's conference held this week in Minneapolis. She said that new curriculum and resources could widen the narrow lens of tribal history and culture taught in most schools, improve public attitudes about American Indians and be replicated in other states.

"I don't think there's a single tribe undertaking an initiative like this," Crooks-Stratton said. "We're hoping we can move the needle in the narrative in Minnesota and be a model."

There's a movement nationwide to boost education of Indian history and culture. A report released Thursday by the National Congress of American Indians found that Minnesota lacks access to curriculum on Native Americans. The report says that 90% of states surveyed have efforts underway to improve the quality of Indian curriculum and access to it, but fewer states require it to be taught in public schools.

Ramona Kitto Stately, who leads the Minnesota Indian Education Association, said much of what students learn is rooted in Indian history before 1900. She said she wants to see legislation that broadens what is taught in classrooms.

"People really think of Native people in the past, and that's reinforced by the education system," said Stately, an Indian education program coordinator for the Osseo Area Schools.

Modern contributions

Crooks-Stratton added that schools should teach students about tribes' modern contributions — from being the largest employers in several counties to bringing forward such rising leaders as Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the first Indian woman to hold statewide office in Minnesota, and U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids, the first Indian women elected to Congress.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said the department is engaging Minnesota's 11 communities in reviews of academic standards. Social studies standards will come up for review next year, and she said they will likely be revised.

A new indigenous education task force also is creating a plan to address academic disparities among Indian students.

"This is a work in progress; we are not where we want to be," Ricker said.

Stately is already helping make changes in the Osseo school district. This year, every school displayed all 11 tribal flags and distributed Dakota and Ojibwe language books to every second-grader to read, she said. "Everyone should know the history of where they live."

'Not a better story'

The Understand Native Minnesota campaign is the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community's second recent large-scale philanthropic initiative. Four years ago, the Dakota tribe launched a $10 million national campaign to improve Indian nutrition, the largest coordinated philanthropic effort on the issue in the nation.

The Seeds of Native Health campaign provided grants to tribes and nonprofits for nutrition programs, reduced sugary beverages in communities and backed healthy foods in tribal legislation, research and policies. It's part of a growing movement of food initiatives among the 11 Minnesota communities to improve health among the state's nearly 60,000 Indians.

There's also an increasing emphasis on preserving and reviving Indian traditions and culture — from refocusing on traditional tobacco (which doesn't have the cancer-causing agents found in cigarettes) and old-style lacrosse (the "Creator's game") to adding wild rice fields and Dakota and Ojibwe language classes to prevent Indian languages from dying out.

Now the SMSC, which owns and operates Mystic Lake Casino Hotel in Prior Lake and has become one of the top philanthropists in Minnesota, is shifting its attention to better educating non-native Minnesotans.

"There's not a better American story than Native Americans' — the hardships they were able to overcome," Crooks-Stratton said. "Why wouldn't people want to know it from beginning to end?"

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141