Since 1997, the Boys & Girls Club of Woodland in Neopit, Wisconsin, has been a meeting place and a resource for the Menominee Indian Reservation. Now, in an effort to strengthen the culture and identity of Menominee youth, the club is fostering art in programs and activities from dance to sports, and seeing the difference it’s making in pride, health, education and even the narrative regarding Native history.
Established for Kids
The Boys & Girls Club of Woodland began as an independent youth-serving organization in 1982 to meet a need not uncommon in Indian Country, says Executive Director Ron Corn.
“In rural areas like ours, there is not a lot of opportunity,” he says. “But kids need positive places and positive things to do, otherwise they go down the wrong path.”
The youth-serving organization, which later became a charter member of the national Boys & Girls Club of America, is committed to providing right paths, with programs and activities designed to foster well-being physically, mentally and spiritually. In 2017, the organization received funding from First Nations Development Institute’s (First Nations) Native Youth and Culture Fund, which made it possible to hire a coordinator and cement programs and services that promote academics, culture, healthy lifestyles and career development. Today, the Boys & Girls Club of Woodland serves more than 600 youth in the Neopit community, including the Menominee Tribal School and the Menominee Indian Middle School.
Responding to Youth
Still, a recent Youth Risk & Behavior Survey revealed that many youth in the community wanted to learn more about their culture and traditions.
“I think a lot of the kids were realizing that they didn’t know who they were,” Corn explains.
With the history of the Menominee Indian Tribe, it was understandable that this sense of heritage and identity was lost, he says. In 1954, the Menominee Indian Tribe was “terminated” through Public Law 108, which ended federal control, but also the tribe’s recognition as a tribal entity. While trust status was restored in 1973, it did not erase the centuries of displacement and assimilation experienced by tribe members.
“I think nationwide a lot of Native people are going back to their roots and trying to resolve issues like these,” Corn says. “And bringing back culture and traditions and passing down artistic customs and skills to next generations is what restores that identity.”
Incorporating traditional Native arts and crafts programs has always been a priority for Boys & Girls Club of Woodland. In providing that essential spiritual component, the club holds art classes and summer art camps, and leads a traditional Menominee dance troupe. Yet, in response to the survey, the club wanted to do more to elevate arts. By applying for and receiving funding from First Nations’ Native Arts Initiative, the club aimed to build on this approach and take programming to the next level.
The year-long Restoring Traditional Art and Craft Project was created to increase access to and awareness of traditional Native artistic and cultural practices. It began with promoting Samantha Grignon, a youth development specialist at the club, to act as the program coordinator. Sam set out to meet grant objectives, which involved identifying community artists to teach a constant flow of programs and classes in artistry such as basket making, beading and carving. She also moved forward plans for a gallery for artists to display and sell their work.
Right away, the project showed an impact. Classes were designed with lesson plans and supply lists, and enrollment was immediately at capacity. In addition, with the support of the grant, they were able to provide artists with honorariums, which placed a value on art and thus validated the artists’ sense of self-worth.
Youth benefited from more classes and opportunities to learn about their heritage as a source of identity and belonging, which is key to positive outcomes in Native communities. “You could see their pride,” says Corn. “You could see it in their smiles and in the brightness of their eyes. It makes their lives better.”
Student Cheyenne Fish is one of those students. “I always wanted a fancy regalia,” she says. “Now, because of Boys & Girls Club, I can dance.”
Another benefit came from getting kids moving in meaningful ways. One of the classes involved teaching youth how to make lacrosse balls and sticks. Corn says that for Menominee people, lacrosse is about exercise, but it’s also about healing. “This is our game, and there are stories about how we play it and why.” By learning how to create and carve the sticks, students not only made the game possible, but kept those stories alive.
Through the grant, the club was also able to invest in a critical component of Menominee dance, which is the specially created regalia. Artisans were identified to teach youth how to bead, choose the appropriate colors based on the dancer’s clan, sew shawls and skirts, and make traditional moccasins and belts. The grant covered all the cost of materials, which removed a barrier for many families. And by learning how to make the regalia and the meanings behind it, the teaching ensured that the cultures and traditions of the dances could be continued.
Corn reports participation in the dance troupe reached capacity at 15. “If you would have told me a year ago that we’d have so many kids who wanted to learn these dances and perform, I would have been shocked,” says Corn. “Now seeing so many of them want to participate, it’s gratifying.”
Program Coordinator Samantha concurs. “Growing up I knew a lot of families that could not afford regalia or didn’t know much of our traditions,” she says. “Doing this program has given us the resources to fulfill our cultural needs for our youth.”
The regalia has indeed enhanced these dances. It’s also resulted in another benefit project leaders didn’t anticipate: education. Leaders expected the project to promote the transfer of artistic knowledge among the Menominee, but they didn’t know the potential of art and dance in educating the students of Wisconsin.
In their new regalia, the dance troupe has performed at the Wisconsin Public Health Fair and at the Indian Education Association. In November 2018, the members performed for the first time at a public high school. With statutes now mandating that schools in Wisconsin teach students about the history, culture and tribal sovereignty of federally recognized American Indian tribes and bands in Wisconsin, the Boys & Girls Club of Woodland is hoping the performance leads to more events, with the potential of being an important part of Wisconsin school curriculum.
Changing the Narrative
Corn says the club is grateful to First Nations for encouraging it to discover what art could do for the community. Through the funding, experience and knowledge of First Nations, the Boys & Girls Club of Woodland has been able to bolster its academic, physical and spiritual programming. The club is sharing cultural knowledge that kids have asked for as they seek that sense of belonging. It is restoring the functional quality of art in the creation of sports equipment, and bringing back the ceremonial purposes of art in the designing of the regalia. Moreover, the club is realizing its role in sharing art, culture and history with the people of Wisconsin.
“To combat stereotypes and discrimination, we need to be a more important player in the education about the history of this country,” Corn says. “If we want people to know our story, we should be out there telling them. Through art, we’re able to do that.”
By Amy Jakober