Youth Create Tribute to Mentor With Help From Native Artist, Community Members


By Adrienne Benjamin Mille Lacs Band Member

During the weekend of January 5 – 7, the Ge-niigaanizijig youth project welcomed renowned Native artist Steven Paul Judd, a Kiowa/Choctaw artist from Oklahoma best known for his t-shirt campaign with the NTVS clothing company. He has been a writer for Disney, a director of small films, and an all- around mixed media artist. Steven’s NTVS website bio states that he “creates art that makes you laugh, makes you think, and makes you feel pride,” and he accomplished just that in his short time here in Mille Lacs.

Steven was contacted after Ge-niigaanizijig leaders came up with an idea to pay homage to Amikogaabaw’iban (Larry Smallwood), who was vital in the creation of the Ge-niigaanizijig youth project. They wanted to teach the youth about this beloved mentor and introduce them to art and to Ojibwe language associated with creativity.

“Steven was the perfect choice, as he is a hip up-and-coming popular artist,” said Byron Ninham, Ge-niigaanizijig Project Director. “We want to engage the kids and get them excited about language and about art, and this was a great way to do both.”

The youth began the weekend with a prayer by staff member Waabishkigaabaw (John P. Benjamin) and a light dinner and meet-and-greet with Steven Paul Judd. The expectations for the weekend were explained, and the youth were off to bed to prepare for the next day’s activities.
The next day began with Steven telling his life story. He told the youth that he was working at his tribe’s bingo hall and saw an ad for a screenwriting competition for Disney. He was among 10 finalists selected to become new screenwriters for upcoming Disney sitcoms. His message was, “Whatever your dream is, you should work to make it happen.”

He went on to show the kids his art creations that ranged from Mindians (an artistic play on the Minions) to photo pop art in which he overlayed images of Godzilla into old photos of teepee villages. He stressed the importance of seeing Native faces represented not only on TV but in art and advertising as well.

The next session was the tile art project. The end result was kept a secret to the youth. As they were painting, many of them were trying to guess what they were painting; guesses ranged from a map to a galaxy. When the tiles were all put together, a wonderful feeling fell across the room as members of Amik’s family, Ge-niigaanizijig staff, community members, and youth realized that they had created a painting of Amik.

They stood together around the art piece and held a talking circle, sharing thoughts about the meaning of the piece and stories about Amikogaabaw’iban. It was truly a beautiful moment for all involved.

After that session, an amazing dinner was cooked by Anthony Buckanaga, and Steven worked on one last painting for the community. It was his own rendition of the cover of the Dr. Seuss book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, translated into Ojibwemowin. That awesome painting will find a home in one of the tribe’s buildings after it is prepped and properly framed. The two paintings were also displayed front-and-center during the State of the Band speech on January 9.

The next morning, the youth talked about their experiences with group staff and shared their thoughts and feelings about the weekend. They also talked about what learning language and culture means to them and why it is important to continue learning the language. Jenai Beaulieu said it best: “It’s import- ant to learn about your culture because it’s what all of the El- ders in the past would have wanted us to do.”

The next Ge-niigaanizijig camp is tentatively scheduled for March and will involve theater. Be on the lookout for more in- formation as it is available.