By SIERRA CLARK, Traverse City Record-Eagle
ELK RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — In a hoop nestled on the property of Elk Rapids High School, the laughter of half a dozen students echoes through the fall air.
Inside the arched plastic-covered structure, freshly picked cedar and pine permeate the air as members of the Elk Rapids Native Youth and Friends Club work to assemble Christmas wreaths.
The wreaths will be sold for the third year to raise funds for enrichment and cultural activities that provide student members with educational and hands-on experiences. The group also aims to help bridge the gaps between communities and students with service projects, the Traverse City Record-Eagle reports.
Together in unison, the hands of the sisters, Ariel Hendershot and Ciarra Parney, work together to sort through a pile of pine and cedar clippings. Both belong to the Nottawaseppi Huron band of the Potawatomi and moved to the area a few years ago.
Hendershot said being so far from her tribe, the student-led group has helped give her a sense of community since arriving in 2019.
“This band feels like family…it really brought me closer to my culture,” Hendershot said.
Parney, along with her sister, said her involvement has also helped her bring her culture to the community level and that she hopes to bring awareness to the diversity of Native American tribes.
“We’re not all the same, we’re really diverse,” Parney said.
She said she hopes to help change the way society views Native Americans, helping move away from harmful stereotypes by showing her Potawatomi culture to the community.
Along with the group of students were Monica Willis and Mike Pelofske, Native Student Liason and Tutor for ERHS. They each circled the tables offering advice on how to arrange the wreaths for the perfect amount of “fluff”.
The duo started the group in 2014 with the goal of instilling a healthy mindset in young Indigenous students.
Willis said it’s important for kids to have a community to grow up with and a place to find mentors. She said the group’s activities not only give students a community to be a part of, but a community they can also give back to.
The group participates in many service projects, including community celebrations and the annual ringing of Salvation Army bells. The students also host an annual family winter snow snake event, an Anishinaabek winter game played on a packed snow trail.
Willis said that when students are involved in a tight-knit community, “their self-esteem soars.”
And all the enrichment activities, including a trip to Yellowstone next spring, are all earned, Willis said.
Dadrian Pitawanakwat, Anishinaabe of Ottawa’s Grand Traverse Band and Chippewa Indians, said he was lucky to have “grown up on the program.”
“I always had Monica and Mike,” he said. “They always encouraged me to be proud of my culture.”
He said that through the group he learned to harvest traditional medicines and take care of the environment as a young steward. He also said he experienced his culture and his community in a way that might not have been accessible to him otherwise. It is the access to his culture that he is grateful for.
In 2018, Pitawanakwat, along with the other students in the group, held a community feast and water walk in honor of water protector Josephine-baa Mandamin, who has since passed away.
“It was my first time making many traditional foods, like lake trout and wild rice,” he said, adding that Pelofske and Willis showed the students how to forage for edibles, like ferns, in preparation for the feast.
Pitawanakwat said it was an honor to help carry water on the boardwalk and it helped shape his views on how he should help protect Michigan’s waters.
“I want there to be a better understanding of Native Americans,” Pitawanakwat said.
He added that he wanted help breaking down barriers and connecting the community to Anishinaabek perspectives on how to be a good steward of the land and waters.
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