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Healing through heritage: Hundreds gather for 17th annual Niimi'idiwin in Bemidji

Community members young and old gathered for the 17th Niimi'idiwin, formerly the Sanford Healing Powwow, to celebrate Anishinaabe culture and heritage.

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Marcus Greatshield, right, joins in the grand entry dance as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — With the pounding rhythm of drums contrasting the gentle, metallic rustle of jingle dresses, a palpable air of excitement could be felt as the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin began on Thursday.

Formerly known as the Sanford Healing Powwow, the celebration returned in full force on Thursday, June 23, after two years of absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Addressing a crowd of hundreds sheltering from the hot sun underneath a series of tents just southwest of Bemidji's Sanford Medical Center, Susan Jarvis, the president and CEO of Sanford Bemidji, welcomed everyone to an event that has become a fixture of the summer powwow season in northern Minnesota.

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Susan Jarvis, president and CEO of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, speaks ahead of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“After the challenges of these last few years, each of us understands how important it is to be in community,” Jarvis said. “After pushing through a difficult few years, we’re so excited to be here.”

A collaboration between Sanford Bemidji and the Red Lake and Cass Lake Indian Health Services, the event is meant to be an opportunity for everyone from the community to learn and celebrate Anishinaabe culture, while also providing information and resources about health care.

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“I love the idea that the community gets involved,” said Marlene Schulman, a participant from Cass Lake. “You can learn about different resources, where to go and who to talk to.”

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Marlene Schulman, right, participates in a veterans dance during the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Beginning with a prayer and a grand entry that included veterans from Leech Lake, Red Lake and White Earth Nations, the event featured multiple attractions, from vendors selling their wares to competitions in different styles of Indigenous dance.

Jingle, Grass, and Men and Women’s Traditional dances each had competitions available for all ages, and each style’s history and meanings were explained prior to the dancers entering the circle.

Darrell Kingbird, who served as the event’s announcer and spiritual advisor, explained that the grass dance is meant to mimic the swaying of tall prairie grasses, and that the jingle dress dance came to the Anishinaabe people in a dream.

“There’s a lot of spirituality in our dances,” Kingbird said.

Audience members were also able to participate, and were invited into the circle to dance on multiple occasions. The day’s celebration ended after a feast of walleye, wild rice and fresh berries and another prayer.

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Tribal royalty joins in the grand entry dance as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Honor guard members hold up eagle staves during the grand entry as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Connecting to culture

The Niimi’idiwin started out as the Sanford Healing Powwow just over 20 years ago, with the first event in 2001 drawing between 60 and 70 people.

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Now the event regularly draws nearly 800 community members together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.

“This is a community event, everybody is welcome here to learn,” said Joe Beaudreau, a Sanford employee who has helped organize the event for years. “That’s how we share our culture with each other.”

As for the name change, Beaudreau explained that Niimi’idiwin means “dance” in Ojibwe and that it’s a more accurate term for the celebration.

“A typical powwow is three days,” Beaudreau said, “this year we thought we’d be a little bit more traditional.”

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A drum group plays a veterans song during the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Children of all ages join in the grand entry dance as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

An emphasis on culture and tradition was apparent throughout the event, from the beautiful regalia of the dancers to the regular use of the Ojibwe language by Kingbird as he announced.

“In a lot of places we go, we never really hear the language, we never really hear our young ones speak,” Kingbird said. “I was asked to use the language as much as possible.”

As much as the event served as a way for anyone who was Indigenous to connect to their culture, it also encouraged non-Indigenous people to learn about Anishinaabe traditions and history.

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Darrell Kingbird, event announcer and a spiritual advisor from Ponemah, welcomes everyone to the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“I like the idea of non-natives getting to look and see the dances. There’s a lot of people who live in Bemidji who have never been to a powwow and they should,” Schulman said. “We’re a part of the community, a big part of the community.”

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Some of the Native American members of the audience also were able to learn something new, as Marcus Greatshield, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe in South Dakot, had a chance to educate the crowd on his culture’s dance traditions.

Greatshield, who is a Tatanka or buffalo dancer, explained why he dances counterclockwise in the circle, something Anishinaabe dancers don’t typically do.

But for Greatshield’s nation, someone dancing counterclockwise serves to protect the other dancers by keeping watch for danger.

“I’m here in a good way to dance for the people,” Greatshield said. “I come in the circle to make medicine for the people.”

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Dancers make their way around the circle during the grand entry as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Landon Monroe competes in boys grass for ages 13-17 during the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Community health care

The event encourages the idea of healing through heritage and working to make health care welcoming for Native American populations by improving communication and cultural understanding between patients and their medical providers.

“It’s a lot of communication and relationship building,” said Rebecca Fineday, Sanford Bemidji’s new Native American community advocate who was introduced at the start of the event.

In her position, Fineday works to build relationships and connections between Sanford and different hospital facilities, including the IHS and tribal health divisions. It also extends to being a resource for patients and staff.

On an average day, 30-40% of Sanford Bemidji’s patients identify as Native American, so it’s important for staff to be familiar with Indigenous culture, something the Niimi’idiwin encourages.

“If there are any barriers in communication I work with that person,” Fineday said. “I want to be a resource to community and staff … if you come with a learning attitude, I’m willing to teach.”

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Children of all ages join in the grand entry dance as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

An educational and celebratory experience for everyone involved, the event wrapped up with everyone full of good food and the winners of each competition receiving their prizes.

A final prayer was held before the crowd began to disperse and begin the wait until next year.

“I’m really glad that they put it on,” Schulman said. “I look forward to this every year.”

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Attendees make their way through the food line during the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Dancers make their way around the circle during an intertribal dance as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Boys grass dance participants in the 5-12 age group line up as the winners are announced during the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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A Sanford Health volunteer hands out popsicles to children during the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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A child joins in the grand entry dance as part of the 17th Annual Niimi’idiwin on Thursday, June 23, 2022, on the Sanford Bemidji campus.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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