Going Native

Escape to Red Lake Nation for dancing, dream-catching, and meeting the modern-day young warriors healing the wounds of an ancient culture.

Afghanistan stamp
Armchair Adventure inside
envelope flap
Red Lake students walking
Heading across the parking lot of Red Lake Middle School, I feel excited. Honored. Humbled to be invited back. It’s been several months since I first visited this reservation school where a class of 7th graders read the curriculum I wrote on Afghanistan. Learning about the lives and struggles of the Afghan teens I spent time in Kabul with sparked a curiosity
back of envelope
Heading across the parking lot of Red Lake Middle School, I feel excited. Honored. Humbled to be invited back.

It’s been several months since I first visited this reservation school where a class of 7th graders read the curriculum I wrote on Afghanistan. Learning about the lives and struggles of the Afghan teens I spent time in Kabul with sparked a curiosity— a connection— toward them.

It didn’t matter that the Afghan kids lived a world away from them. And it didn’t matter that Red Lake, Minnesota was a six-hour drive away for me. When their social studies teacher emailed me saying her students were so emotionally moved that they wanted to talk to me in person, I suddenly felt a connection to them too.

In the Ojibwe language there is a saying: Mitakuye-Oyasin (mi-TAHK-wee-a-say). “We are all related.”

Apparently, discovering the plight of kids growing up in an active warzone was a sort of awakening for the Red Lake students. Their compassion toward another community devastated by the agenda of outsiders was touching. The correlation between their pain— which remained beyond the consciousness of much of the outside world— was undeniable.

Suddenly I felt the need to hear from the Red Lake kids just as much as they needed to hear from me.


Passing through the front door metal detector, I feel an unsettling chill. Eight years had passed since one of the Red Lake students succumbed to his agony and opened fire on the school, but the heartache of the tragedy lingers.

Perhaps the Ojibwe kids’ sense of kinship with the Afghans helps externalize their own trauma of displacement and loss. Perhaps now they are no longer the only ones who can’t catch a break from the violence. Perhaps now they are no longer the only ones who feel isolated from an outside world that doesn’t even know, or care, that they are hurting.

Red Lake school
Heading down the main hall, the aroma of burning sage wafts through the hallways— the Ojibwe smudging ritual to cleanse bad energy and achieve healing. I close my eyes and exhale. There is still hope here.

Perhaps their Afghan peers— another generation struggling with depression, suicide, and chemical dependency yet somehow determined to forge a brighter future— offer the Red Lake teens a new perspective to contemplate.

During my previous visit, 13-year old Autumn felt compelled to write a letter to the White House to discuss her feelings on American involvement in the war in Afghanistan, and the importance of her generation’s involvement in becoming a part of the solution. Regardless of violence, poverty, and corruption, they all dream of being more than the world’s statistics.


When Autumn asked me whether she should send the letter, my inner realist was apprehensive. Would the White House— the face of the federal government and genesis of Native devastation— acknowledge this girl’s letter? Would they bother discussing world conundrums they still had no solutions for? And if they blew her off, would their indifference set her up for another painful reminder of her insignificance?

The thought of her disappointment was unbearable.

Posters on walls in school
Walking through the hallways, colorful murals, football schedules, anti-bullying posters and dream catchers line the walls.

Is it possible for this new generation— whether in Afghanistan or Red Lake— to transcend their legacies of pain and find a place in creating a new future?


Rounding the last corner, I head toward the classroom.

Up ahead, waiting by the door— with eyes lit up and soul on fire— Autumn is electrified. She reaches out and places an envelope in my hand.

Written on official White House letterhead, a letter is addressed from the President of the United States of America. My heart races as I begin to read.
Dear Autumn,

Thank you very much for your letter….

Convenience store in Afghanistan
History museum
History museum
History museum
History museum
History museum
History museum
History museum
History museum
History museum
Smudge pot burning
Up in Smoke - The Power of Smudging
White sage
For centuries, Native Americans have burned sage as a spiritual ritual to cleanse a person or space of negative energies, as well as promote healing and wisdom.... continue reading
According to Anthony Fleg, MD, assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, “it is a way to metaphysically un-cling the things that cling to us that are no longer needed-- spiritually, mentally, and physically… Almost the way a sponge can cleanse things from you that are stuck to you.”

Sage contains flavonoids– plant compounds that have medicinal properties– which appear to improve brain health. Very little clinical research has ever been done on humans, so, while the healing effects of smudging hasn’t been proved, it hasn’t been disproved either.

Fortunately, the spirit world picks up where science leaves off.
Dream catcher
Catching Dreams - Healing Nightmares

— more commonly known as dream catchers— originated from the legend of Asibikaashi, the Spider Woman, who was the protector of children. Ojibwe mothers wove “spiderweb charms” to hang over the cradles of sleeping babies to catch any harm that might be in the air, just as a spider's web catches whatever comes in contact with it.... continue reading
Dream catcher hanging
Over the years, dream catchers have evolved into a popular decorative craft, however, members of Michigan’s Little River Band of Ottawa Indians have created a very special asabikeshiinh that is spinning a web of healing among American children affected by violence and trauma.

It started in 1999 when the Columbine High School massacre shocked the world. Native Americans believe that all humans are related, so despite the 1,200 miles that separated them, Lisa Gutowski’s students in Muskegon, Michigan created a dreamcatcher for the children of Colorado.  “We gifted the dream catcher to heal the people, as we do with our children,” said Gutowski. “We gift them to our babies so that they heal, have good dreams, and wake up to do good things.”

Little did anyone know the dream catcher’s journey was just beginning, and its metaphorical web growing.

In 2005, after students in Red Lake, Minnesota were gunned down in their classrooms, the Columbine students re-gifted the dream catcher to the Red Lake community in recognition of their shared trauma and loss.

Seven years later, in 2012, when 26 were massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a group of Red Lake students drove across the country to personally re-gift the dream catcher. Determined to be there with them and for them, they arrived in Newtown, Massachusetts with heavy hearts— new relatives in the tragically expanding “dream catcher family.”

In 2014, the Sandy Hook students re-gifted the dream catcher to Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington state, where four students were killed.

In 2016, the Marysville students re-gifted it to Townville Elementary School in South Carolina, where a 6-year-old boy was killed on a playground.

In 2018, the Townville students re-gifted it to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, where 17 were killed.
Dream catcher group
Whether visiting victims and their families, attending funerals, or even school board meetings in the affected communities, members of the “dream catcher family” brought the gift of their presence— letting their brothers and sisters know that they were not alone.

After nearly two decades— traveling thousands of miles to all corners of the US— the dreamcatcher is now in its permanent home in the National Teachers Hall of Fame, but it will forever belong to all young people in hopes that they heal, have good dreams, and wake up to do good things.
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Map of Red Lake, MN
Satellite map of Red Lake
World map
Native woman dancing
Pow Wows & the Power of Bling
Shaman stands on mountain
More than social gatherings to dance, sing, and hang out with friends over a savory, frybread taco, pow wows are a celebration of life. A space for healing and preserving history while adapting new ideas in a constantly evolving world. The story of the Jingle Dance is one powerful expression of this cultural dynamic.... continue reading
Native woman jingle dancing
Also known as the ‘healing dance,’ the Jingle Dance was created by the Ojibwe in the early 1900s as the World War I influenza pandemic was ravaging American communities. When a medicine man’s granddaughter grew sick, spirit guides appeared in a dream telling him to create a dress that made the noise of rainfall. The Ojibwe believe spiritual power moves through air, so when the sound of the jingles helped the girl rise from her sickbed, the Jingle Dress and dance continued to be performed to heal the community as the outbreak spread.

One hundred years later, Ojibwe women and girls— decked out in dresses bedazzled with beading and metal cone fringe (ingeniously upcycled from snuff-tin lids)— continue to Jingle Dance at pow wows not only for the health and wellness of their families, but competitively for cash prizes as well. With dozens— sometimes hundreds— of Ojibwe women kicking their heels and bouncing on their toes, it’s a multi-sensory explosion of healing energy.

According to Brenda Child, professor of American Studies at the University of Minnesota, “We know today that there’s a lot about healing that can be done through medicine, but there is a psychological component that is less understood….their dance was part of this psychological component of illness.”

In celebration of this audible elixir, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe present “Ziibaaska' iganagooday: The Ojibwe Jingle Dress at 100.” An exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Jingle Dress, the display will be open through Oct. 31, 2020 at Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia, Minnesota—a tribute to the power of energy, the power of women, and the power of bling.
Chef Sean Sherman
Chef Sean Sherman
Indigenous ingredients
Natural spread
Food methodology
Foundations of Indigenous food model
Sioux Chefs
Chefs Kyle, Sean, and Tasha plating
Native dish
Morel mushroom with smoked rabbit
Indigenous food labs logo
Indigenous food labs
Native walleye dish
Walleye, rosehip, sorrel, corn broth
Sioux Chefs
Sioux Chef team members
Native rabbit dish with wild rice
Rabbit, wild rice, and cedar
Chef Sean Sherman
Chef Sherman
Fry bread
Fry Bread Meets the Sioux Chef
Teeth of piranha
A delicious-yet-decadent treat served at pow wows and potlatches, frybread can be found dripping in honey or cradling savory taco fixings like no tortilla ever could. But frybread's significance to Native Americans is more complicated than deep-fried, comfort food. For many it’s a painful reminder of the darker days of Native American history.... continue reading
After several millennia of hunting, gathering, or farming staples of corn, squash, and beans, forced re-settlement onto barren reservations and substandard farmland left many Natives in danger of starvation. In consolation, the government distributed basic commodities of flour, sugar, salt, and lard.

To some Natives, frybread’s creation as a dietary staple became a symbol of resilience and perseverance. To others, it was a symbol of colonial oppression— not to mention a source of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But when indigenous chef Sean Sherman proclaimed frybread is “everything that isn't Native American food,” he began a food revolution that would revitalize Native American cuisine— and redefine the meaning of “comfort food.”
Chef Sean Sherman
Growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, Sean Sherman understood the connection between poverty, "food deserts," and chronic illness. And after moving to Minneapolis to train in culinary arts, he soon understood the impact of foreign disruption on ancestral food systems.

Determined to take knowledge from the past and evolve it to create healthier, more sustainable, and culturally sound food production, he began by creating innovative cookbook: "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen.” The Sioux Chef mission not only sourced ingredients native to the Americas but abandoned those imported by colonists.  Rather than use dairy, wheat, beef, pork, cane sugar, or other non-indigenous ingredients brought by European settlers, Sioux Chef dishes feature squash, wild rice, berries, bison, plums, mushrooms, dandelion, wild herbs, and greens, and cooked in woodfired ovens. According to Sherman, recipes are "hyperlocal, ultra-seasonal, uber-healthy…and utterly delicious."
Chef Sean Sherman
But while the success of the cookbook was huge, the Sioux Chef vision was just getting started.

With his diverse, indigenous-led team, Sherman joined a growing movement that links processed foods and the poor diets of Native Americans to cancer and heart disease. The Sioux Chef launched North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems (NāTIFS), a nonprofit actively addressing the economic and health crises affecting Native communities by re-establishing Native foodways. An Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis houses a training center covering all aspects of food service, from research and development to indigenous food identification, gathering, cultivation, and preparation. Future plans include replicating the model in more remote tribal regions to help others open their own indigenous food businesses as well.

And the higher the Sioux Chef climbs, the farther his vision continues to expand.

Partnering with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board’s Mill Ruins Park, in 2020 the Sioux Chef will launch the most revolutionary project of all, Water Works. A restaurant and event center located at Minneapolis’s Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park— for millennia, the sacred site of peace, healing, and well-being for the Dakota and Anishinaabe— Water Works will grow indigenous plants at the pavilion and host events that educate the larger community about Native American history and culture in the most iconic location of all time.

Best of all, The Sioux Chef will offer these creative, healthy, sustainable, and delicious dishes to the public. And THAT is comfort food.
Native American textile
Native child and mother at pow wow
Native child at pow wow
Young boy in cultural dress
Native American boy
Native child performaning at pow wow
Native girl at pow wow
Young child at celebration
Native child at pow wow
Native American girl with cultural dress
Native child performaning cultural dance
Native American youth
Girl at native festival
Girl dancing
Native boy dancing
Native American pow wow
Traditional pow wow attire
Listen to the GSD Podcast
The War Within: the cultural trauma of teens in a rapidly changing world.
Native textile
Dina and Guatemalan kids
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Next stop, the Mayan Kingdom! #MGGA
Photo credits
Smudge Pot: By Tony Alter (Flickr: Smudge Pot) - [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/78428166@N00/10047149973

Map of Northern Minnesota: United States Government [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_minnesota_lakes.png

Native American textile: Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK [CC BY 2.0] - https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/

Ojibway_Beadwork_%288032217878%29.jpgJingle Dress: Montanabw [CC BY-SA 3.0] - Montanabw [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Fry Bread: By Stacy Spensley (Flickr: American Indian Fry Bread) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/notahipster/2551917137

Fry Bread Taco: By Kate Ter Haar (Flickr: Indian Fry Bread Taco) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/katerha/8259312100

Pine trees: By Tony Webster (Flickr: Anglers Campground - Zippel Bay State Park) - [CC BY-SA 2.0] - https://www.flickr.com/photos/diversey/37533847736