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Sharing breaks down culture barriers

This is one of those excellent adventures this time into Indian country, the Red Lake Reservation and the community of Ponemah, Minn. It's about looking at the Ojibway culture through the eyes of Yangkyoung Lee, a friend and colleague from Seoul,...

This is one of those excellent adventures this time into Indian country, the Red Lake Reservation and the community of Ponemah, Minn.

It's about looking at the Ojibway culture through the eyes of Yangkyoung Lee, a friend and colleague from Seoul, South Korea.

It was a good trip with the turbulent and fitful weather of August mellowing into a wonderful, fall-like day. The wetlands and forest areas of north-central Minnesota last weekend were absolutely perfect.

As we moved farther and farther into the deep forest areas of the reservation by the back roads, our path was lined with bright yellow black-eyed Susans, sunflowers and tall, grainy sedge and wetland grasses. In the thick of the wetlands, lazy, slow creeks from Upper Red Lake crawled alongside the highway. Ducks, pelicans, great blue herons and other water birds were paddling around the edges of the water, sometimes dipping into the water and hoisting their tails high.

It was that kind of day.


When we arrived in Red Lake, the community was bustling with construction and activities. The old high school, where the tragic shooting took place in 2005, was full of earth-moving equipment and piles of dirt. The tribe tore down the part of the school where the deaths occurred, and the new areas are beginning to take on a new air and shape perhaps like the tribe.

One of my reasons for visiting Red Lake was to bring some books I had collected for the tribal college library. They always are grateful and happy for them. This time, one of the women told me the elementary school also needed books. The school didn't even have "Tom Sawyer," she said.

I would put the word out, I told her, so anyone who has books they no longer needed can contact me or the Red Lake Elementary School with their book donations.

The long shadows of the tall pines meant that it was time to head for Ponemah and the powwow. Ponemah is one of Red Lake's most traditional communities. A large percentage of the residents speak the language, and the culture is intact, a council member told me.

This small community is some distance from Red Lake proper and lies in a nook between Upper and Lower Red lakes.

When we arrived, the powwow people were setting up. The arena is settled a short distance from the lake. Many campers set up near the lake and took advantage of the beautiful lake view, and I'm sure they were grateful there were just a few gnats and no mosquitoes.

When the crowds arrived and after we'd had our share of Indian tacos, Darrell Seki, tribal councilman, and Tom Stillday, spiritual leader, welcomed and prayed for the community in Ojibway.

As each dancer entered the arena, dropping tobacco (asemaa), they circled the arena until it was filled with the sounds of the drums, the singers and the jingling bells from the dancers' outfits. Next to the drums, the major sound was the jingle-dress dancers they outnumbered almost everyone and ranged in age from barely walking to white-haired women in their 80s.


This shouldn't have surprised me.

Red Lake is culturally Ojibway, and according to the stories told to me by my friends there, the jingle dress came from the Ojibway culture. Here is the jingle-dress story as I heard it:

The traditional dresses are made of prints or cotton broadcloth. Sometimes, it's asked that no eagle feathers or plumes be worn with the dress.

On the dresses are 2- to 3-inch cone-shaped cylinders that are sewed in circles around the dress. The cones usually are made from Copenhagen snuff tins. Some say there are 365 cones or jingles, to represent the days in a year.

There are different stories about why the dress came to be. One story says that the dress came about when a man's daughter was very sick. In a dream, he was told to make four jingle dresses and have four women dance and pray for his daughter. After four days, she got well.

To be able to wear the dress, I was told, a woman has to acquire the rights through spiritual healing and medicine. Most important, the dress always is worn with pride and grace.

After about three hours, I could see a strange darkness creeping over the trees. I thought it was fog, but it wasn't. In fact, I'm not sure what it was, but the easy journey to Ponemah turned out to be more frustrating on my return because I got lost driving on unmarked roads that night. We ended up in Bemidji before we turned toward home.

On our way home, we talked about Ojibway culture, and I learned some things about Korean culture. Sharing is a good way to bring understanding among people of different cultures.

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