American Indian Heritage Month celebrates community

by Onize Ohikere

On a chilly fall night, a dozen people gather around a burning ceremonial fire. Its embers float into the air, along with their offerings and prayers. A young boy walks around the group, stopping in front of each person gathered. He carries a shovel holding some ash and sage, still smoking from the fire. They open their hands and fan the smoke toward them, pushing it into their faces and breathing it in.

“It cleans you up,” said a woman wrapped in a blanket.

The cleansing serves as preparation for the sweat lodge event.

One by one, attendees file into the Inipi, and two men place glowing-hot rocks from the fire inside the lodge, beginning the ceremony.

The sweat lodge is a common practice among American Indians. The use of rocks and water tie elements of the earth into this spiritual event, and the steam they create purifies the participants both physically and spiritually.

The sweat lodge is one of the many events the American Indian Student Association arranged celebrating American Indian Heritage Month. Every November for the past two years, AISA participates for a major reason.

“People think of Native Americans as people of the past,” said MSUM senior Cera Swiftwater. “I don’t look at it as ignorance. It’s good just to get people educated.”

This year’s heritage month featured a panel discussion, a documentary screening and traditional games, among other activities. With five different sweat lodge events, Laidman Fox, a medicine man from Spirit Lake, North Dakota, said it’s an important ceremony.

“Our bodies push out everything (they don’t) want, and our spirit becomes alive,” Fox said. “It’s for any student that wants to come in and cleanse their mind and body and relieve them of any stress.”

Since beginning Nov. 3,  AISA president Brianna Bradley said campus and community responses have been positive.

“Usually, for opening ceremony, we have 10 to 15 people,” Bradley said. “This time, we had about 60 people.”

Beyond raising awareness, the heritage month holds a deeper meaning for American Indian students. Swiftwater moved nine hours away from her home on the South Dakota Pine Ridge reservation to attend MSUM. When she felt homesick, she got involved with AISA. The community made a difference for her, but the heritage month offered her more yet.

“Being able to show people my culture really helped me,” Swiftwater said.

Besides helping with the general planning of the month’s activities, she led the traditional hand games event on Nov. 17. Now a senior, Swiftwater is able to reach out and be of help to other students feeling homesick.

The month’s activities wind down with a reading on Nov. 30.

Rebekah Jarvey, Fox’s partner, said the month’s intention is to educate: “I think people would hopefully have a better understanding of who we are … as indigenous people.”

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