Making Culture Cool Again


Amikogaabawiikwe Adrienne Benjamin Guest Writer Byron Ninham Photographer

“We want to revitalize tribal identity in youth while trying new ap- proaches to provide educational and artistic opportunities.” said Byron Ninham, Interim Coordinator of the Mille Lacs Band’s 21st Century Community Learning Grant.

Byron and his team at Nay Ah Shing’s afterschool program are trying to do just that. Mille Lacs was recently re-awarded a Bureau of Indian Affairs 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC) Grant for 2017. Byron sees this latest venture as a renew- al of many different ideas that have been executed through the grant over the past few years. Since the Band has been award- ed this specific grant, it has always remained with a Native arts focus, ranging in disciplines from the- ater, to lacrosse, beadworking, and regalia making.

Byron said that their latest inspi-
ration came during a Bureau of Indian
Education grant training with “Creat-
ing Change.” It highlighted programs
that are having meaningful impacts in
tribal schools across the country and
explored programmatic impact data
reporting of such programs. He said
that it also taught him to look toward
the long term of success, toward the
growth of impact over time. “21st
Century’s goal is to not teach to the
test — it’s to find innovative ways to
better engage students in learning
and to make learning more fun,” Byron
said. “Kids attending pow wows or
taking part in community events helps
with social skills, it gives cultural pride, and it instills a sense of community into the youth. It makes kids believe in themselves in a big way.”

Another goal of the program is to recharge the idea of a func- tioning and traveling drum and dance troupe. The belief is that with well-made, artist-driven work, they can create regalia for every student who comes through their program doors. They want to create regalia that the kids can be proud to wear in the commu- nity or at a large national contest pow wow. 21st CCLC Learning Instructor Patti Wiersgalla said, “Everyone that wants to dance should be able to. We don’t want the lack of regalia to prevent a child from being a part of their culture and heritage.”

21st CCLC Learning Instructor Tony Buckanaga has found his own niche through his work in the regalia program. He has found himself learning right alongside the youth and experimenting with his own skills and capabilities in sewing, beadwork, and parfleche work. When asked about the program, he proudly said, “This isn’t work to me. It’s something that I think about every day. I want to inspire these young people to have the same care for the arts that I do. I definitely found my passion in this, and I want to share that with these kids.”
This past summer, the group tried out the idea of taking a few of their program participants to a large contest pow wow. Three Mille Lacs Band youth, Cedric Bearheart, Jason Wind, and Dante Benjamin, took a trip with 21st Century staff to the 54th Annual Oneida Nation Contest Pow Wow. Although none of the young men placed, they represented the tribe and their schools with great pride and responsibility. They were forced to come out of their comfort zones and to dance hard and with pride. Not only was it a social learning opportunity for the young men, but it was exercise and, of course, it was fun!

Byron sees these activities as the spark to the fire of cultural love and instilled pride and self-acceptance just waiting to be lit. He believes that continual exposure to opportunity and mentoring are the key to any successful venture when it comes to youth, and he believes that his team provides those things and more. In clos- ing, Byron said this: “We have an opportunity to make culture ‘cool’ again, and these kids are responding and picking up the baton and will pass it on forward into the future.”


Above: Dante Benjamin, Cedric Bearheart, and Jason Wind participated in the 54th Annual Oneida Nation Contest Powwow.


Patti Weirsgalla and Tony Buckanaga are 21st Century Community Learning Center instructors at Nay Ah Shing.

Jada Wind showed off new regalia made at Nay Ah Shing this fall.