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Tribal Leaders

Meet Vanessa Goodthunder, an American Indian graduate determined to give back to her community
May 24, 2017

Photo of Vanessa Goodthunder on horseback

Each year, Vanessa Goodthunder takes part in the Dakota 38+2 ride to commemorate the hangings of 38 Dakota and two others that occurred on December 26, 1862. The ride also raises awareness of Dakota history and promotes healing. Hear Vanessa as a U of M freshman talk about the ride and about teaching youth about the Dakota culture.​

Minnesota is home to 11 federally recognized American Indian tribes, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the University of Minnesota has the nation’s oldest program in American Indian studies. Established in 1969, it immerses students in native history, literature, music, politics, law, culture, and more.

But not everyone who wants to study the American Indian experience can afford to do so. Residents on many reservations are poor and lack the needed support to even consider college. 

Thanks to philanthropic support from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC), that’s changing. Since 2008, the community has funded a scholarship for American Indians, allowing recipients like Vanessa Goodthunder to use their education to make life better for tribes across the Midwest.

As a child growing up on the Lower Sioux Indian Community reservation in southwestern Minnesota, Vanessa Goodthunder noticed something strange: A number of the students at her school were Native American, but none of the teachers were. “That always bothered me,” she says.

Last May, Goodthunder, now 23, graduated from the U of M with a bachelor’s degree in history and American Indian studies. She spent the spring co-teaching world history, human geography, and Latino and Chicano studies to ninth graders at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School, and recently began working on a master’s in education at the U. Ultimately, she hopes to teach the Dakota language and high school social studies in the Twin Cities or on the Lower Sioux reservation.

Goodthunder’s passion for education reflects her own experience. “Education really helped me thrive,” she says. When she arrived at the U in 2013, she found the pace and population of the Twin Cities campus overwhelming, but her parents encouraged her to persevere. “They said with education, I could grow myself to grow the community,” she says. 

Over time, with the help of the Circle of Indigenous Nations and other campus groups, Goodthunder found her voice. She also benefited from the SMSC Endowed Scholarship. “Having that scholarship was a huge financial burden lifted off my shoulders,” she says.

Goodthunder’s passion for teaching is intertwined with her love of the Dakota language. Statewide, only five people who grew up speaking Dakota remain, but Goodthunder is part of a group of roughly 30 who have learned the language as an adult. 

She says she cares about keeping Dakota alive because it’s the language of her ancestors and embodies so much of her tribe’s identity and sovereignty. “It’s who we are and without it, we aren’t whole,” she says. 

Goodthunder calls her home Cansayapi, for example, which means “where they paint the trees red.” She believes vivid images and ideas get lost in translation: “Language always reflects a world view, geography, and place. It also tells us who we are and lets us communicate who we want to be.”

This story was orginally published in Legacy magazine.