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Festival of culture: Second annual Indigenous Arts Festival held in Bemidji

Art Jones, of Cass Lake, dances in the Men’s Traditional Dance during a powwow exhibition Saturday during the second annual Indigenous Arts Festival in Bemidji. Malachi Petersen | Bemidji Pioneer1 / 3
A group of dancers dressed in traditional regalia perform in front of an audience during the grand entry of the powwow exhibition held Saturday at the second annual Indigenous Arts Festival in Bemidji. Malachi Petersen | Bemidji Pioneer 2 / 3
Canoe builder Jim Jones shows Lily Fulton the types of tools he uses while Daniel Lodermeier, 8, explores the bow of the boat. Malachi Petersen | Bemidji Pioneer 3 / 3

BEMIDJI -- Brightly colored dancers with extravagant headdresses and regalia danced to songs passed from generation to generation Saturday as part of an effort to educate community members about native culture.

The second annual Indigenous Arts Festival brought more than a hundred people to the Rail River Folk School on Saturday to see examples of indigenous art and music. Numerous presentations were held, including canoe building and basket weaving.

Jesica Saucedo, an event organizer, said Saturday's festival gives local artists a way to showcase their work to the community.

"Our idea is bringing together the traditional artists of the area and feature their work--give them space to demonstrate and the time to meet with the community to talk about the importance of their art," she said.

Rail River Folk School partnered with the Bemidji Area Indian Center to host the event, and received a Region 2 Arts Council grant, Saucedo said.

Set up for the festival started Thursday night with most of the tents for the vendors and artists in place by Saturday morning. Several musical acts were delayed because of heavy rainfall Friday night, Saucedo said.

"I think the weather might scare some people off since we're in between thunderstorms -- let's hope we get to that 500 mark today," she said.

A variety of songs and dances were performed during a powwow exhibition. Dancers in traditional regalia gave performances such as grass dancing, a chicken dance, a crow hop dance and a men's traditional dance. The regalia worn by the dancers looked like grass blowing in the wind as pieces of metal connected to the clothing clanged against each other to produce a rhythmic, swooshing noise.

Rayna Churchill, a designer of jingle dresses such as the ones worn in the exhibition, said the tradition of dressmaking was passed on to her from her mother. The jingles, which are small metal cones, are arranged on the dresses in a number of patterns depending of the preferences of the maker. She said the design of attaching jingles to clothing originated from the Ojibwe nation of the Great Lakes and some tribes call them healing dresses.

"The story goes that there was a little girl who was very ill and the father had a dream and was instructed how to assemble the dress. With the assistance of his sisters and his grandmother, they put the dress together," Churchill said. "After she wore it, she regained her health again."

As the performers showcased the dances of their ancestors, a drum circle kept the beat, singing songs in the "language of the spirits."

According to David Northbird, a member of the Cass Lake Area Dancers and the announcer for the powwow exhibition, the songs are not in any particular language but are religious in nature.

"What we believe is that that's the language of the spirits. When we're thinking about our religion and our spirituality -- it is a language but it's one we don't quite understand," Northbird said.

Cherilyn Spears, one of the cofounders of the event, said the festival serves to break stereotypes about indigenous people.

"We want to show them how we really dress," Spears said. "They're not 'woo, woo, wooing.' Our songs aren't like that They're real songs."

Spears also said the festival helps keep traditional artwork alive in a time when fewer and fewer people know how to make the products their ancestors once made.

"It's a lost art. We don't want to lose it, we want to preserve it and we want to teach it," she said.