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JW Smith students celebrate Native American Heritage Month

In the culmination of Native American Heritage Month, on Tuesday JW Smith Elementary students witnessed an array of powwow dancing and learned about an important part of Indigenous culture.

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Chicken dancer Aniziigwan Novak, 10, dances on stage for students on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at JW Smith Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- In the culmination of Native American Heritage Month, on Tuesday JW Smith Elementary students witnessed an array of powwow dancing and learned about an important part of Indigenous culture.

District Culture and Curriculum Specialist Jamie Copenace kicked off the beginning of November by presenting about powwows at several Bemidji schools before wrapping up the month’s festivities at JW Smith.

“With (November) being Native American Heritage Month, I thought 'let’s share some of our culture,'" Copenace said. "A big part of the culture is powwows, so I prepared some powwow lessons for each grade to be informative of what powwows are and what to expect, and what you see (at a powwow).”

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Nola Copenace, 5, shows off her fancy shawl to an auditorium of students on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at JW Smith Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Three jingle dress dancers watch as Aniziigwan Novak dances on stage for students on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at JW Smith Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

These lessons were initially brainstormed in response to a request made by some teachers with November approaching.

“Sometimes, teachers will reach out and ask about doing something in the classroom and want to know how to go about teaching those lessons,” Copenace said. “That’s how this started.”

Following the lessons, Copenace noted that JW Smith had many dancers she wanted to incorporate into a demonstration in order to share their culture with other students.

The resulting 10 dancers and a drummer reigned not only from JW Smith but also from Gene Dillon, Bemidji Middle School and Lincoln Elementary. They also came from various tribal nations including one of the dancers, Miikawaadizi Novak, 13, who’s a Leech Lake princess.

The students donned several types of traditional regalia and demonstrated various dances -- including jingle dress dances, a chicken dance and girls and boys traditional dances -- for the auditorium full of students.

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Brynnley Copenace, 9, introduces herself to students on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at JW Smith Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Leech Lake Princess Miikawaadizi Novak, 13, leads a group in dancing for students on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at JW Smith Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Copenace hopes that students will notice the range and richness that powwows have historically and continue to have today.

“Powwows are going on all over. An awareness of the culture and the tribes -- Ojibwe, Anishinaabe -- (the powwows) are one cultural aspect that we have,” Copenace said.

Other ideas have sprouted beyond the powwow demonstration. The kindergarten class took part in a scavenger hunt as part of a language project with the help of high school Ojibwe students.

“They integrated technology into it by using QR codes, where the high school students translated and recorded their voices for each item the kindergarteners found. It was really neat to see that come together with the high school students coming together to teach the younger ones,” Copenace said.

Bringing cultural relevance into the classroom proved successful for November, which Copenace credited as the work of teacher suggestions and collaboration.

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She added, “(The teachers) reaching out was really what made this whole thing come together.”

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Jamie Copenace, culture and curriculum specialist for Bemidji Area Schools, speaks to students on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021, at JW Smith Elementary School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

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Monday’s Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting focused primarily on COVID case updates, proposed high school schedule changes and a review of the district’s ESSER funding.