Severed roots: Visiting a past I never had

I made my first visit to the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota this summer.

It was about time, since I’m an enrolled member there.

Why I’d never been there before is a long story. I’ll write more about it in a future post, but let’s just say that the way that American Indian culture fizzled and pretty much died in my family through my grandparents’ and my mother’s generations is not unique. The more I’m around other people of Native American heritage, the more I realize that everybody’s doing a certain amount of learning — some were exposed to more of the culture as a child and some are more like me. American society did it’s best to squash out native people and their culture — both literally and figuratively — and it’s actually pretty amazing how much has survived.

I’ve been wanting to go up to White Earth for a long time. About four years ago, I started thinking about making a documentary film about “my reservation”. But I didn’t want to just go there and start shooting video before I had an idea of what I was trying to do, so I kept putting it off.

This summer, MinnPost, the online news site where I do freelance video and writing, provided me a great opportunity (nudge, perhaps?) to finally go. I’m part of a project called Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads. MinnPost received a grant from the Bremer Foundation to profile young people in small towns and rural areas of Minnesota. We’ve been doing groups of reports around themes, and the summer cluster of reports was about Native American youth.

I spent two days at the White Earth Pow Wow in June and ended up with four videos, featuring nine young people. They ran last week in MinnPost along with another piece I did about a Dakota man in southern Minnesota. Here’s a link to all of those videos.

(all photos by Steve Date)

I’ve been to few pow wows over the years, but always only for an hour or two. Hanging out for a couple of days, walking around, talking to people, feeling the drum beat and the rhythm of the days gave me a whole new appreciation for it. I started to feel a little more like I was in the middle of it, a little less like an outsider looking in.

I find it difficult to shoot both video and still photos at the same event. When you’re doing one, you feel like you should be doing the other. Since this was mainly a video assignment, I didn’t take as many stills as I would have liked. But I’ve put some in a Flickr set. You can view those photos here.



A reservation is a complex place. There are many story lines and some of them are not easy to understand or to tell. It took me 58 years to get there, but now I want to do a film about this place more than ever.

Stay tuned.

Yesterday was a spirit bead for me

Many Native American cultures, including my mother’s Anishinabe (Ojibwe) heritage, include a concept called the “spirit bead”. Women would intentionally string a wrong-colored bead into an otherwise perfect pattern as an act of humility — to demonstrate their belief that only God can create something that is perfect.

See if you can spot the bead that's out of place in this Ojibwe (Anishinabe) bandolier bag from the 1930s (photo by Ann Kiefstad for MNArts.org)

My Mom never taught us about this because it’s likely she didn’t know it herself. This and other interesting and potentially meaningful traditions were taken from her mother at the Haskell Boarding School in Kansas. My Mom did teach me a bit about another kind of beads — the ones on a rosary, which are used to keep track of how many times a “prayer” is chanted. For me, those beads were in the category of meaningLESS traditions.

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Religion aside, I think the spirit bead is kind of a cool idea. We all get frustrated when things aren’t exactly the way we want them. Many of us are all too aware of our lack of perfection and get discouraged when trying to do something well. For anyone who has obsessive-compulsive, anal-retentive, control freakish or generally perfectionist tendencies, the act of making a mistake or leaving something undone provides a good opportunity to take a breath and look at the bigger picture.

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Last spring, on my 57th birthday, I decided to do two things — 1. write this blog, and 2. Take a photograph every day and post it to my photo-of-the-day website. The blog has been coming along, some months better than others. The idea behind the photo project was to make sure I stop and notice something every day and preserve a moment in time. I’d shot and posted a photo each day since April 1st (8 months and 2 days) — until yesterday. Some days I barely made it and took a late-evening photo. When I was in the hospital recently, I had 3 days of cell-phone photos in the room. A couple of times, I did a “screen grab” from some video I’d shot that day. But I was pretty proud of the fact that I’d keep it going for so many months without missing a day.

For a variety of reasons, yesterday passed without a photo. It got to be evening and I had to soak my foot (recent surgery). My foot was hurting, it was getting late and I decided to take a day off — make it a spirit bead, so to speak.

While the photo of the day project has been very good for me, I’m glad I did that last night. It reminds me why I’m doing the project in the first place – to stop and notice.

So, if you ever look through my photos, remember that December 3 is the orange bead on the green pattern. Of course no one but me cares or will ever notice it, but that’s perfectly fine.

Well, almost perfectly.