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'A really sacred gift': Leech Lake holds first-ever baby-welcoming ceremony

Renesmae Jones takes part in the Young Eagles Drum Group on Friday during the Welcome Babies Ceremony at the Leech Lake Veterans Powwow Grounds. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 1 / 2
Mary Lyons speaks at the Welcome Babies Ceremony on Friday at the Leech Lake Veterans Powwow Grounds. She was joined for part of her speech by 2-year-old Rose Mitchell. (Jordan Shearer | Bemidji Pioneer) 2 / 2

CASS LAKE — Members of Leech Lake's Family Spirit Program wants the band's babies to know where they come from.

That's why, for the first time, the band held a public welcoming ceremony for Leech Lake infants Friday.

"It's for helping moms learn how sacred and how precious they are and how their babies are a gift to all of our nations. They're not just a gift to their family but they're a gift to the whole nation," said Family Spirit Program Supervisor Birdie Lyons. "You don't have babies just to have babies for yourself, you have babies for your nation, for all humanity really, and so that's a really really sacred gift that your Creator has given you."

The grant-funded Family Spirit Program has been in existence for years, but efforts to reach band members both on and off-reservation have ramped up in the past three months. The program's website refers to it as "the largest, most rigorous, and only evidence-based home-visiting program designed specifically for Native American families."

Program workers help pregnant women and new moms learn parenting and life skills, make sure children get appropriate healthcare and connect families with community services. They also help plan events such as Friday's ceremony.

"We try and get them when they're still pregnant and we just give them information about how to bring themselves into a healthy, happy family," said Emily Shelton, who works with the Family Spirit program. "Giving them the tools that they need to help raise a kid and bring one into the world.

Family Spirit has recently started a men's program as well.

The ceremony, attended by about 60 people, opened with an honor song by the Young Eagles Drum Group, followed by a pipe ceremony and a statement read on behalf of tribal Chairman Faron Jackson. Jackson could not attend the ceremony due to a meeting with Gov. Mark Dayton.

Michael Smith Jr., son of Leech Lake elder Mike Smith, read Jackson's remarks.

"What we have gathered here to do is a new way of carrying out one of the most ancient responsibilities," Smith said. "The welcoming of the babies who have come to this beautiful territory to be part of our lives, and to ensure the future of our nation and way of life."

Mary Lyons, a Leech Lake band member, Ojibwe elder and one of four Indigenous Grandmothers who oversee Women of Wellbriety International, traveled to Leech Lake to speak at the ceremony. She emphasized the importance of knowing one's culture and said everyone should be familiar with their family's history, whether or not they are indigenous.

The Ojibwe people have always welcomed infants into the band, Mary Lyons said. Public ceremonies have been rare, however, as the Indian Freedom of Religion Act was not passed until 1978.

"It makes you think about your ancestors," she said. "It's just knowing history of what that's about. So it's just, for me, to push the empower button when people go 'I don't know,' you do know. It just needs to wake up."

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796