by Nathan Warner
Drumming to a traditional tune, eight American Indian students from Westwood Elementary helped officiate a teepee monument Friday night, erected at the Handke Center as a donation from the American Indian Education program of the Elk River School District.
American Indian Education Specialist, Debra Blair, led her students in their performance during Handke Center’s Family Fun Night. Dressed in traditional Ojibwe beaded buckskin garb, Blair welcomed everyone into Handke’s gym to hear her students perform a traditional Ojibwe lullaby on natural leather hand drums.
Framing the players was a display of rich American Indian culture that grounded the tone of the performance. Blair said the lyrics of the song were the words of a grandfather singing his grandson to sleep. Between the grandfather’s repeated words to his grandson, she added there were “vocables” – words or sounds without specific or translatable meaning.
Sylvia Cabak, Rayna Cabak, Karisa Dooley, Olivia Coker, Daunte Sellers, Tate Krueger, Daisy Bray and Richie Bray gave their performance and wowed the audience.
They donned their ribbon shirts to show their pride in their nations and displayed their skills with the drum, which they have been practicing since January. Blair said that unlike other drums in American Indian culture, hand drums can be played by both men and women, making it an ideal choice for her students to pick up.
“In our traditions, the drum is sacred and treated like a part of the player’s own body, and it is believed that the drum picks the player,” she said.
She had her students pick the drum they felt drawn to and wrote their names on them. “I made it clear to them that these drums are to be treated with honor and looked after, and it is their responsibility to maintain them,” Blair added.
The students performed with their drums at Elk River High School’s Evening of the Arts, April 25, and will perform at Westwood’s Art and Talent night, May 16, as well as at the graduation ceremony for American Indian students at Hassan Elementary.
After the performance, Blair led her students outside to perform at the teepee monument behind Handke in the damp, chilly air.
“We had hoped to officiate the teepee with wild native flowers in bloom, but the weather has not been helpful,” Blair said.
A crowd of eager listeners gathered outside for the ceremony.
Director of Community Engagement Charlie Blesener and Cathy Simonson, manager of Early Child Family Education, said they were very grateful for the donated teepee.
“We’re really fortunate to have such a wonderful program in the school district,” Blesener said about the American Indian Education program, adding that Deb Blair does a phenomenal job with the students in her care.
The teepee itself was constructed by Nate Wattenhoeffer of Temper’d Steel Inc. in Anoka. Funds to build it came primarily came from Pizza Ranch fundraiser money.
Rather than a smooth concrete base, sandstone textured cement was poured by Tim Schlichting of Foresight Concrete in St. Francis to mimic the look and feel of earth.
Nine iron poles form the teepee with four flags streaming from the top.
“The flags are red, white, black, and yellow,” Blair explained. “Their colors represent the four races of humanity, the four directions, the four seasons, and the four stages of life and are taken from the American Indian medicine wheel.”
Before seeking the warmth inside, the American Indian students performed their lullaby again in the chilly air beside the teepee for the audience.
Blair said she hopes students will use the teepee as a place to learn and grow.
“Traditionally stories were told in the teepee during the winter months,” Blair said, “and I hope students will pick up a storybook and come out to read inside this teepee, sharing in the warmth of our way of life.”