DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Members of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe are finding creative ways to stay connected in a socially distanced world.

"I feel like we’re all trying to stay connected to our culture and spirituality, whether it's virtually or in other ways," said Julie Smith, a Detroit Lakes resident and White Earth descendant.

Smith, who now is homeschooling her three children, ages 8, 9 and 14, says she has incorporated lessons on Ojibwe culture and language into their curriculum wherever possible.

"I took a few Ojibwe classes a few years ago," Smith said. "We’re getting out those worksheets and practicing our Ojibwe — the kids are really proud of that."

In addition, they are spending time outdoors as a family, as well as cooking and preparing their meals together at home.

"We're spending our time discovering the importance of these things in our culture ... developing a relationship with the food that we're eating, and our language, and just being outside and getting fresh air — just sort of slowing down and finding the beauty in that," she said.

Mike Swan, who is the Native American cultural liaison for Detroit Lakes Public Schools as well as an elder of White Earth's Pine Point community, said that he's been kept busy teaching online Ojibwe classes to his students at Detroit Lakes High School and Area Learning Center since the district began its new distance learning programming March 30.

"One thing we have been doing with one of the classes is teaching them about different plants and their Ojibwe names, how to identify them and some of their properties," said Swan, adding that with spring on the horizon, this topic seemed to be especially apropos.

Music and dance

Music and dance are also an important part of Ojibwe culture. Though some events, such as the 152nd White Earth Powwow, have already been postponed, the music must play on — even if it's online.

Adrian and Jordan Bloom recently performed a drum song together — a performance that was recorded by their mom, Kelsey Sandberg, and uploaded to the web.

Jordan and Adrian Bloom, ages 7 and 9, respectively, recently performed a healing drum song that their parents uploaded to a Social Distancing Powwow website. The two have been performing with area drum and dance groups since they were toddlers, according to parents Anthony Bloom and Kelsey Sandberg. (Submitted photo)
Jordan and Adrian Bloom, ages 7 and 9, respectively, recently performed a healing drum song that their parents uploaded to a Social Distancing Powwow website. The two have been performing with area drum and dance groups since they were toddlers, according to parents Anthony Bloom and Kelsey Sandberg. (Submitted photo)

"They just did it for fun one night and they wanted to do it as a healing song for COVID-19," Sandberg said. "They just got out their hand drums and we recorded them and put them on Facebook and it circulated around.

"They are part of the drum and dance group at Roosevelt Elementary," she continued, adding that Adrian, 9, and Jordan, 7, have both been performing since they were toddlers. "In the summertime they also travel around to different powwows and stuff, and sing with different drum groups — the main drum groups they sing with are Smokey Hills and Little Turtles.

Another drum and dance team from Detroit Lakes Public Schools recently compiled a Facebook video of themselves performing from various locations. Emily Buermann, a parent volunteer with the group, posted the video to her Facebook page.

"We were in the midst of assigning seats on our bus to travel to state (drum and dance) competition when the schools suspended all sports and then shut down for spring break," Buermann said. "We meet twice a week all year long, so our kids not seeing each other and dancing and singing together was hard for them. They're a sports team, but they're more than just athletes, they're connected together through a shared culture. Like any other spring sports team or activity, there's that feeling of disconnect from friends, teammates, and from the usual comfortable routine. We wanted to try to bridge that gap and have our kids work together on a project and have that quick video visual of being together."

Another team mom, Melyssa Belland, had the idea for the video to help the kids feel more connected with their teammates. Buermann and her husband, Jeremy, gathered and edited the video clips and posted it online.

Smith said that she and about a half dozen of her friends got together — while maintaining proper social distancing — on a recent Monday evening to do a drum group performance in front of the flags at the Detroit Lakes Pavilion. They gave a special encore performance April 8 in the same location.

"We just missed each other and wanted to connect, but we couldn’t because of COVID, so we decided to go down to the Pavilion and perform," she said. "We sang for our community and the world, and we really connected with Mother Nature at the same time."

Smith also said that one of their group members was able to participate in the performance virtually, from her temporary home in Madison, Wis., where she is completing work on her doctorate

Members of Julie Smith's drum group met on the City Beach near the Pavilion on April 8 to perform together, while standing at least six feet apart from each other. The performance was filmed on a member's smartphone so another member of the group who was temporarily living in Madison, Wis., could participate virtually. (Submitted photo)
Members of Julie Smith's drum group met on the City Beach near the Pavilion on April 8 to perform together, while standing at least six feet apart from each other. The performance was filmed on a member's smartphone so another member of the group who was temporarily living in Madison, Wis., could participate virtually. (Submitted photo)

Protecting the home from unwanted intrusions

In addition to music, Sandberg said, her boys have also been engaging in cultural activities such as making medicine bags filled with cedar and tobacco to hang over the doors and windows of their home.

"That basically keeps anything bad from outside coming inside your home, such as the virus," explained the boys' father, Anthony Bloom, adding that they also practice smudging, a Native American tradition that involves cleansing a space to invite positive energy, by burning different kinds of plants and allowing the resultant smoke to fill and purify the environment.

"Smudging is very important right now," Smith said.

In addition, she and her family frequently make and drink a type of tea made from cedar, a fragrant wood that is often used in smudging ceremonies as well as in the creation of tobacco ties (another term for medicine bags) to hang above the entrances to their homes.

Sandberg said that gathering the materials for and brewing cedar tea is one of the culturally-steeped activities she and her sons have been able to do together as well.

"We smudge and drink the tea every day," she said.

Smith said that she also regularly makes cedar tea to share with friends and family; the tradition has just taken on added meaning given what is going on in the world right now.

"I think we’re getting down to the root of family, which is love and kindness and supporting each other," she said, adding that when she is unable to have her children at home, she will go out to their father's home near Ice Cracking Lake to work with them on their schooling for a few hours, or meet with them virtually via the FaceTime phone application. "We’re working together really well and that’s family. Doing what’s best for your children."

Smith said that another way she has been able to connect with other women in the community — some of whom are from other cultures as well — is through hosting full moon ceremonies at her Detroit Lakes home. Right now, however, that isn't possible — so the members of her group got together online, through the streaming application Zoom, which allowed them to see each other and converse together in real time.

Detroit Lakes resident Julie Smith set out all the materials for a virtual full moon ceremony before joining her group on the Zoom meeting app on Tuesday, April 7. (Submitted photo)
Detroit Lakes resident Julie Smith set out all the materials for a virtual full moon ceremony before joining her group on the Zoom meeting app on Tuesday, April 7. (Submitted photo)

"There were 14 of us logged in," she said. "That's our usual number — anywhere from five to 15.

"We have several full moon ceremonies going on each month in White Earth," Smith continued. "Women come together and how it typically works is, we start with smudging and cleansing the air, then have a talking circle and the elders start. The elders figured out Zoom for the first time that night."

After the talking circle, they typically make tobacco ties, using yellow fabric to tie around the various materials like cedar and tobacco." We bring the ties out with us to the fire and go around the circle (burning them). We each take turns spending time with Grandmother Moon. There is a ceremonial process that includes water and cedar and fire; we also sing songs together with hand drums or shakers.

"After that we have a feast. We all bring a little dish to share and do a spirit plate before we eat, gathering little bits of the things that each person brought with some tobacco. We thank the spirits first, then put that spirit plate into the fire."

After that, the women share a meal and fellowship together before heading to their homes. Smith said the online ceremony included as much of the process as possible, though each of them had to light their own fire and prepare their own feast. She noted that the entire ceremony took about an hour and 45 minutes to complete.