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Wednesday, 01 July 2020

Volunteering at White Earth Reservation

Written by Tyrel Nelson
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My father saw gnomes as he neared death. They started with their backs against the paneled walls of his living room, moving closer and closer to him each day. He wasn’t scared though. Rather, he appeared to be comforted by them. After Dad died, a hospice grief counselor told me that it isn’t rare for people to observe things—humans, hounds, hobbits all the same—shortly before they are to breathe their last. Not only do the figures circle in, but they also take the shape of something familiar, lightening to the dying while they prepare for departure. I smiled upon hearing this. Pop was a Tolkien fan, so it was fitting that trolls ushered him into the next life. I got goosebumps to boot.

Shaking Tent

Several years pass until I get such shivers again. It’s late in the evening in the middle of May. Nine students from Carroll University, their professor, and I are hunkered on the edge of the White Earth Powwow Grounds in northwestern Minnesota. Dressed in layers and huddled beneath blankets, we strain our eyes to decipher the shadowy shapes in front of us. The trajectories of our visible breaths lead us to dim flashlight beams. We trace the rays back to tiny clusters of silhouettes seated amongst the metallic bleachers of the sanctified arena. A light fog has crept in from the adjacent forest to join in attendance. An almost full moon softly glows over a faint white structure at the bullseye of the revered ring. The construction has the form of a circular shower curtain, and the ends of branches are jutting out of the top. Suddenly, a handful of men sitting next to the tent beat their drums and belt out loudly. The singing eventually tapers off, and the reverberations echo into the distance.

Every so often, a drummer leaves the center to escort individuals from one of the patient groups back to the tent. Those who are taken to the tent kneel before a small gap at the bottom. The kneelers articulate their names, where they are from, and present a cloth that identifies their tribe. They then ask for advice concerning a specific problem (e.g., health) with which they are struggling. The tent shakes in response to each petition, sometimes quite vigorously. When the quavering stops, counsel is contributed from inside the tent. Requests carry on through the night. We watch until the cold air ultimately grows unbearable.

The following morning our Anishinaabe (uh-nish-ih-nah-bay) guide, a well-respected local sage, fields the various questions we have about the ceremony. He reveals that the tent shakes upon contact with the spirits. The higher beings, in turn, yield the helpful information which is sought. Although he cannot clarify what exactly happens inside, he asserts that the advice imparted the previous night did not come from a person.

Sacred Cedar

Two days after the shaking tent, the Carroll crew and I return to the hallowed site with dozens of cedar seedlings. The Anishinaabe have long cherished cedar. Moreover, they utilize it to protect rarified locations and timberlands. Given that a forest provides the backdrop to the White Earth Powwow Grounds, it is understandable that our team has been asked to add more cedar trees to this numinous neck of the woods.

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We spend the duration of that dewy dawn planting all over the area. We visit other establishments important to the community, such as the White Earth Reservation Tribal DOVE (Down on Violence Everyday) women’s shelter, Indian Health Clinic, White Earth Senior Apartments, and White Earth Tribal Headquarters. We root the remainder of our three hundred seedlings at a K-12 institute. We are invited inside for a midday snack.

A dynamic voice abruptly bursts through the double doors a few minutes later. The cacophony of convo, chuckles, and clanging silverware no longer occupies the lunchroom. Returning our PB and J and tiny milk cartons to their respective slots on our plastic trays, we give our undivided attention to a middle-aged fellow sporting a ponytail. He strides to a long table, putting one of his feet atop its bench. He rests his forearms on his bent knee. He leans in.

The speaker has a captivating presence. Even though he addresses the entire squad, he locks eyes with everyone, making it seem like he’s communicating with us individually. The man goes on to thank us for all the hard work we’ve done to find homes for the baby conifers around Circle of Life Academy. The principal is principally contented with our efforts because cedar on the White Earth Reservation has become scarce. He further explains that cedar is sacred, sacred locally due to its ceremonial, religious, and medicinal purposes. As a small token of his appreciation, he subsequently lays out the steps for how to draw on the trees we’ve been planting for a common ailment. He concludes his expression of gratitude by affirming that, albeit intangible, his gift—a bestowal of knowledge—is one which can last forever, especially since it can be passed down to others.

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Last modified on Wednesday, 01 July 2020
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