The journey of a lifetime
Although they come from very different backgrounds, Ojibwe fiber artists Dennis Williams and Dana Goodwin agree they were drawn to each other through their mutual attachment to the Ojibwe traditional ways. They had a bumpy journey until they met 16 years ago and walked the path to sobriety in unison. Their deep love and tremendous respect for each other is very much palpable when she acknowledges they are able to learn from each other or when he emphasizes the perfection of her custom-made regalia. They both work with children within their community and devote all their spare time to making regalia for family members or addressing custom orders. He's a beader and an accomplished Grass dancer while she's a fiber artist and an experienced Jingle Dress and Traditional dancer, like her mother and grandmother before her.
Dana and Dennis made their home in Mahnomen County on the White Earth Reservation in Northwestern Minnesota to raise their twin daughters and the four children they've had from previous relationships. Living a healthy life, attending powwows, reconnecting with their native language and educating children reflect the couple’s holistic approach to the revitalization of their Native American culture, which has suffered decades of federal assimilation policies.
In the 1880s, off-reservation Boarding Schools were established to assimilate Native People into the mainstream of American culture. Children were taken away from their reservations and sent off to Indian Boarding Schools run like military institutions, where they would learn English, be strictly forbidden to speak their Native language and be raised as whites. Under the Assimilation through Education program many generations of Native American children were brutally separated from their families and made to forget their language. In 1883, The Court of Indian Offenses outlawed Native American traditional ceremonies, claiming these rituals encouraged warlike passions among the tribes. This law would not be repealed until 1978 by President Carter.
Drawing strength from their Native spiritual beliefs that permeate into every part of life, Dana and Dennis have embarked on a soothing journey and their quiet determination cannot be derailed: "Without our own language we do not have that connection with our spirituality but we also lose that identity that makes us different from non-Native people" says Dana who recently earned her K-6 Education degree at Minnesota State University, Moorehead and is now an Ojibwemowin, an Ojibwe language, teacher at White Earth Reservation. Her parents were college educated and had a long career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A). Dennis, on the other hand, was a foster child who moved often during his childhood. He was born in Lacrosse, WI from a single mother who was adopted away from the Reservation and retained little connection to her native culture. He developed a strong relationship with his adopted grandmother Genevieve. Creative at a young age, Dennis thrived as a track and field athlete and a graphic design student at University of Minnesota, Duluth, but after the passing of his beloved grandmother his life went into a downward spiral until he met Dana and put his life back on track. Long before he became a dedicated Grass dancer, his grandmother predicted he would be a dancer: "I didn't go to powwows back then and since it was the mid-1980s I tried to picture myself as a break dancer but it was weird!"
Dennis embraced his Native culture in his early 20s and discovered that previous generations of women in his family had done beadwork, even creating specific family bead flower designs. "Beadwork usually reflects each Nation's environment and traditionally revealed where you were from. Nations from the Plains or the Southwest use many triangular motifs representing teepees or mountains. We have rolling hills, vines and flora. We are Anishinaabe,” he explained.
Dennis ordered his early regalia from an artist in Montana, until he met Dana and figured he could make his own beadwork and save money for his family. The self-taught artist learned from reading books or watching videos and with the help of a mentor, Michael Knapp, a professional bead artisan of Winnebago descent. He first made a new headband for himself and went on to make moccasins for his sons. Making beaded footwear for powwow contests can be quite challenging, as moccasins must be beautifully crafted and able to withstand wear and tear. "I start from scratch, assembling the hide and beads, then it all comes from my imagination." The harness he wears on top of his outfit took him ten months to finish. "Powwows help us to keep our traditional ways alive. When we make outfits, we’re sewing by hand, like our ancestors did. They made all of their clothes and adorned them carefully. Clothing showed status in the community, they had meaning. I always knew my children would be powwow dancers and I always wanted them to know our traditional ways. I’ve given a lot to the powwows and I have been given a lot. It’s hard but it’s also rewarding. Making outfits and regalia takes a lot of time and the knowledge that you have to acquire to be a powwow dancer, you won't find it in books, you have to experience it and live it”.
Dana grew up in a traditional Ojibwe family where handcrafts and needlework were a way of life. She believes her family had an innate need to create. Her great grandmother and aunts made quilts, rugs, baskets and beadwork, and her mother's father was a constable who could still make drums and snowshoes: "He could brain-tan deer hide, that's still the most coveted way of tanning hide! My grandmother made braided rugs and quilts and I loved to play with her fabrics and her huge buttons collection.” Her mother made her clothing until she was in elementary school and the young Dana who loved to draw and build things, dreamed to become an architect or a fashion designer. Today she designs powwow outfits, relying on what she learned in college about color but mostly following her own creative sense, as there are no clothing patterns for powwow regalia. Although most members of her extended family dance at powwows, she is deeply saddened to be the only one still sewing or doing anything tied to their indigenous arts. Dennis and Dana enjoy working on their family regalia together and they feel blessed to be able to continue the tribal crafts of their ancestors.
"The Jingle Dress is an Ojibwe Dress that was gifted to our people through a dream to help heal a sick girl. Nowadays, people who need a healing can request it of all the Jingle Dress dancers present at a gathering. During the Healing Ceremony they tell how it came to be, the original color and the sacred responsibility of the people who wear Jingle dresses. There are certain steps (as with each dance style) that are appropriate, but it’s not choreographed. The Ceremony ends with a feast offering, also part of the healing. In our way, we don’t ask for strength, as we believe you get strength from going through something. When you request strength you’re asking for something to happen so that you can get through it".
The Jingle Dress typically features metallic cones made from tobacco can lids sewn closely onto the dress by ribbons. As the dancers delicate footwork follow the drumbeat, the jingle cones produce a soothing and eerie chime sound. When entering a contest, a Jingle dancer is judged upon her traditional footwork and the embellishment of her dress.
Appliqué work adorns women’s and men’s regalia alike, with designs and motifs reflecting their heritage. The colorful Grass dance outfit has no feathers, except for the porcupine roach two feathers. Long strands of ribbon or fringe symbolizing the sway of prairie grass hang from the arms and waist of the dancers, while bells worn around the ankles emphasize their precise footwork. Beaded accessories like moccasins, cuffs or harnesses disclose the artistry of the dancers who often make their own regalia. “Outfits are very personal. You may see the same fabric but the appliqué and beadwork will always be different ” says Dana.
The B&G Club
Dennis is the unit lead of the White Earth Boys & Girls Club in Mahnomen, an after-school program providing a safe and respectful environment for K-12 students. Busy with administrative paperwork in the morning, he interacts with children in the afternoon. "The White Earth community has issues of addiction and domestic violence. I can draw from my personal history to help the children, especially the ones who keep to themselves. I learned different card and ball games just to play with them. Those I call "my problem kids" may have a really tough time with me because I believe in following rules for safety reasons. Most of our kids don’t have that consistency at home. That’s where the role model comes into place. I’ve had role models who stirred me in the right direction too. Many of my kids are now young adults and I may bump into them on the Reservation. I'm always available for them if they need me".
Working as a Scholarship Administrator and also a member of the Board of Trustees for Tribal College, Dana felt she lacked in-depth knowledge of her native cultural backgrounds. Growing unsatisfied with her former college education, she took a few classes at the White Earth Tribal Community College. Reconnecting with her native language and history on a deep level was a decisive moment.
"Hearing our language again just drew me in. I knew I wanted to speak that well and become a college professor of our language, Anishinaabeemowin or Ojibwemowin. Learning the language and passing it down to our youth is so important. Very few people can speak Ojibwe and we don’t have a fluent speaker living on the Reservation anymore. Some young people have learned it as a second language or in their childhood but it's not spoken in homes anymore. I want our children to know and understand who they are and be proud of who they are. Hopefully they will hang on to that knowledge. I believe we must take what we know from the past and walk forward into the future.
All our students are Native Americans and the struggles we have on the Reservation are very present. The constant turn over of teachers and administrators does not help the children. Most of our people don’t go to school and graduate, so we don’t have educated people who understand our struggles, our historical trauma, or that we are still experiencing oppression, and that all this generational sadness derives from our enduring struggles. I thought that having more Native American teachers would be helpful so I went back to school to become an Ojibwe teacher for my people”.
The determination behind her soft-spoken voice is unwavering. As an Elementary Educator at the Circle of Life Academy (COLA), Dana Goodwin is looking forward to building speakers, starting with the revival of the long oral tradition of the Ojibwe language. Her young students do not know how to read or write yet so her focus is to set up the foundations of the language. She feels the most important thing for the children is to hear their Native language and become comfortable with it, then learn to speak and respond fluently. “This is all about revitalizing our Native language since we lost almost everything. So few people know about or attend the ceremonies, compared to how many live here, it’s scary”.
Modern Day Powwow
Traditional and Contest powwows are social gatherings. Traditional powwows have a more relax atmosphere where participants of all ages can dance together. Contest powwows award prize money up to $3,000 and dancers from all over the country gather to compete and wear their finest matching regalia.
Grass Dance originated in the Warrior Societies of the Northern Plains Nations and was adopted by the Ojibwe people. It has become men’s most competitive dance style on the powwow trail requiring dancers to be strong and fit. The drums and singing are key elements of most of Native American customs and beliefs: "When the drum and the singing start, it’s hypnotic, it's like going to another realm, you’re just in the moment and you feel really good” explains Dennis. "Drums are the heartbeat of our gatherings. They must be attended or covered up and can't rest on the ground. There is a lot of responsibility with being a drum keeper and a singer. The songs are not written and are taught from one singer to another. Lead singers have the ability to remember all the songs and some have the gift of making songs. A Powwow is a safe and healthy environment. It’s neither religious nor ceremonial. It’s spiritual in a way that it nourishes your spirit”