At the Red Lake Nation Boys & Girls Clubs, CEO Thomas Barrett, Jr. and his staff are helping young people learn more about their Indigenous heritage.
On the hillside above Lower Red Lake, Shia D. dances one of many traditional dance styles of our Ojibwe culture here on the Red Lake reservation, wearing her Fancy Shawl regalia. She has been dancing for years and participates in the drum and dance programming at our Red Lake Nation Boys & Girls Club.
A drone flies by overhead, capturing footage – operated by members of our technology club. They’re filming what will soon be our music video, “I’m Anishinaabe.” The song pays tribute to our Anishinaabe culture and celebrates our youth.
Anishinaabe is the word for “human being” in the Ojibwe language. The song speaks to having pride in our culture as the Anishinaabe people, but also to the idea that we, too, are human beings, just as you are a human being, no matter what your heritage.
I wrote this song and proudly rap the lyrics alongside our Red Lake Club members in the video. Since high school, I’ve used poetry and then rap music to express myself. My music has always been a reflection of who I am – and that expression has changed and grown with me. I have a family now, a community I care deeply about, and I’m constantly learning about my own Ojibwe heritage – all while being the CEO of our local Boys & Girls Club.
In our music video, traditional Indigenous clothing and dance combined with rap lyrics and drone footage shows the unique balance of what it means to be a Native young person these days.
Everybody is Americanized. We live in the 21st century and understand the everyday pursuits of maintaining our lives – getting high school diplomas, college degrees, 401Ks, taking care of our families.
For many of us born into Indigenous heritage, there is a disconnect from our culture as we get more and more Americanized; I felt this myself as a kid growing up in Red Lake.
But in my 20s, I learned that becoming in touch with our culture gives us identity. And to have identity is to have strength and awareness of ourselves. When you have those values, you can pursue whatever you want in life.
At the Red Lake Nation Boys & Girls Club, I want our young people to reconnect with our culture in ways that make sense to them right now – for me, this is what “re-Indigenizing” our youth is all about.
In doing so, I hope they begin to better understand and are proud of their heritage, and that they continue the traditions that make our community and culture so meaningful.
Our Ojibwe culture and learning has become a cornerstone at our Club. In addition to normal Club programming like homework help and athletics, we incorporate Ojibwe culture in small ways – we added Big Drum Singing Lessons to our music options. We offer Ojibwe language tables and words of the week so Club members can learn our language. We teach them about our sacred medicines – tobacco, sage, cedar, sweetgrass.
Even the sport of lacrosse is a way to connect with our culture. Kids want to play because it’s fun and it’s time together in the gym, but there’s a point in the game when we throw the ball into the air, point our lacrosse sticks upward and everyone shouts out their best and loudest battle cry – and we tell them, that’s our way of connecting with the Creator, the one who made all of us and all things.
It’s a style of teaching that’s not forced. Our Club staff knows to take what we have as youth development professionals and as members of this community and empower our kids.
We have kids who are so into it, they take every cultural class and opportunity, and some who are more unfamiliar with our Ojibwe heritage, who feel shy about getting involved. When I see our more unsure kids start participating and realizing our culture is for them, too, it’s such a beautiful moment for me. For some of our Club members, these connections to our heritage can become a ripple effect toward deeply embracing our culture and becoming the future leaders of our Red Lake community.
When I think of Native American Heritage Month this November, I recommend that my non-Native friends look up the Indigenous people who live in your area. With your families and the young people in your life, research the tribes of your state and region, and all the cultural things that make them unique. What language do they speak? What foods are important to them? What is their story? There is no one way to describe Indigenous people, nor today’s Indigenous youth.
And as you explore these cultures, I hope you find that the way Indigenous people live is not so different. You pray at church, we pray in a sweat lodge. We dance and we eat. We share a love for our families and communities, and we believe that our young people are the future.
We are more alike than we are different. We are all just simply human.
Learn more about how Boys & Girls Clubs serve Native communities across the nation – reaching 120,000 Native youth in American Indian, Alaska Native, American Samoan and Hawaiian tribal communities through more than 200 Clubs.