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'The gift of life': Leech Lake's annual Welcome Babies Celebration returns

Supported by Leech Lake’s Family Spirit Program, Manidoo Ningadoodem, the event is part of efforts to support Native American families and emphasize a sense of community.

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Jennifer Durant holds up her 10-month-old daughter, Esmerea, to listen as a drum group plays a birthday honor song on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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CASS LAKE — The Leech Lake Nation made up for lost time at their annual Welcome Babies Celebration held for the first time since 2019 at the Leech Lake Powwow Grounds on Wednesday.

First held in 2018, the ceremony aims to welcome infants and new families into the community and provide resources related to maternal health and early childhood development.

Supported by Leech Lake’s Family Spirit Program, Manidoo Ningadoodem, the event is part of efforts to support Native American families and emphasize a sense of community.

“(The purpose is) to let the people know they are important, they are sacred, they are needed and they are wanted,” Family Spirit Program Manager Birdie Lyons said. “To let the babies know from the get-go from the time that they’re born, they’re welcomed into a community and cared for.”

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Family Spirit Program Manager Birdie Lyons speaks on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

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Stories of significance

A pipe ceremony opened the celebration followed by several speakers who highlighted “the gift of life” along with traditional creation stories.

Leech Lake Band member Elaine Fleming shared one such story explaining the origins of Ojibwe people and how they sustained themselves.

“They say in the beginning, there was a woman first. And this woman was up there,” Fleming said while gesturing to the sky. “She was really, really lonesome and after a while, Creation sent her a spirit man.”

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Leech Lake Band member Elaine Fleming explains the Ojibwe creation story on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

The spirit man gave her twins though she soon lost them with the man leaving her as well. Creation sent another man to the woman and she became pregnant with another set of twins, which Fleming described as the commonly thought-of first Ojibwe people.

She explained that animals invited the woman and her twins down to Earth saying they would care for her and her children.

“That first winter, her babies were starving. So the animals talked about that and the ‘makwa’ (big bear) decided that he would offer himself so that those babies could have life, food to eat, clothing and medicine,” Fleming detailed. “So we’re grateful to ‘makwa.’”

Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson spoke about his experiences as a foster parent during his address to the roughly 100 attendees.

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Leech Lake Tribal Chairman Faron Jackson speaks on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“The greatest gift you can give the Anishinaabe people is the gift of our children, and we give that gift of love to these children so they can nurture themselves and heal from a lot of the trauma that goes with these children for years,” Jackson said. “We’re healing to get strong. Not to carry any anger or hate around, but to be appreciative and thankful for the gift of life.”

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Jackson mentioned the seven grandfather teachings — Anishinaabe principles of character passed down from generation to generation. These include love, respect, bravery, truth, honesty, humility and wisdom.

Leech Lake Elder Mike Smith Sr. highlighted the significance of the first pair of moccasins a child receives.

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Leech Lake Elder Mike Smith Sr. speaks on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

“When (the children) start walking, they’re given a set of moccasins and at the bottom of the moccasin, there’s a hole in the bottom. That gives the child a natural connection to and respect for Mother Earth,” Smith said.

Leech Lake member Mike Smith Jr. also provided remarks on behalf of Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan who was unable to attend in person.

A drum group played a birthday honor song for the babies to close out the program portion of the day.

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A drum group plays an honor song on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Multi-generational support

Door prizes and gifts for those ages 0-3 and parents were in plentiful supply, and around a dozen organizational booths were available for attendees to enter their names for raffles and for general information.

Booths included Beltrami County Public Health, Leech Lake Early Childhood Development, Ball Club Clinic and Leech Lake’s Women, Infant and Children program among others.

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Attendees check out the booths set up on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Attendees from Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health also took part in the celebration.

With the expansion of the Family Spirit Home Visiting Program to Leech Lake and over 100 other tribal communities across 16 states, Crystal Austin, associate director of development for the Center of American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins, spoke on the benefits of the program.

“Family Spirit is an evidence-based home visiting program that promotes maternal health and early childhood development. There is a slew of other programs, but this is the only one designed with and for Native communities,” Austin detailed. “Leech Lake and other tribes wanted to use this program as they were building their home visiting programs, so they use the model.”

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Madison Fairbanks, 4, plays with her little brother, Angelo Smith, 1, while their mother checks out the Ball Club Clinic booth on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

According to Leech Lake’s Family Spirit website, some program objectives include increasing parenting knowledge and skills, preparing children for early school success and addressing maternal psychosocial risks that could interfere with positive child-rearing.

Musing on the day’s festivities, Austin noted the multi-generational interactions.

“The multiple generations of people showing up here with their grandparents and grandchildren, seeing the community leaders be invested in making sure their youngest members are feeling welcomed. It’s really beautiful to see,” Austin said.

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Attendees make their way through the food line on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

With the turn-out growing throughout the early afternoon, Lyons sees this year’s celebration in a special light considering the pandemic’s effects over the past two years.

“Some people are still afraid to bring their babies out, but for two years we haven’t been able to do this thanks to COVID,” Lyons said. “So we’re doing two years worth of welcoming babies and giving them gifts for being here.”

Lyons credited Jackson as the “brainchild” for the event and hopes it continues for years to come.

“I’m going to be 70 years old in July," Lyons added with a laugh. "So I’m hoping this continues long after I retire and I walk off into the sunset.”

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Miranda Jackson sits next to her 16-month-old son, Curtis Jackson Jr., as they listen to a drum group play a birthday honor song on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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Cordel English-Whitefeather, 1, sits in a stroller while his mother and grandmother check out a booth on Wednesday, June 22, 2022, during Leech Lake’s annual Welcome Babies Celebration, in Cass Lake.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Daltyn Lofstrom is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer focusing on education and community stories.
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