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An Ojibwe Arts and Culture ‘Renaissance,’ Thanks to Online Pandemic Connections

Michelle Reed

Pandemics are nothing new to Ojibwe people. Neither are isolation or cold winters.

“Long ago, the arts and crafts, they kept our people from going stir-crazy,” said Greg Johnson, a Lac du Flambeau artist. “Our culture was definitely there for us. It’s almost like insurance for bad times.”

The current pandemic has put that spirit on display for Ojibwe artists. It has led to a resurgence in cultural exchange, Johnson said. A glance at traditional moccasins being produced and dances being taught makes that clear.

And it’s all happening online.

Credit Julie Mallon
A pair of moccasins made by Julie Mallon as part of Greg Johnson's class.

Normally, Johnson travels often from his Lac du Flambeau home, visiting several states and Canada to share his knowledge of traditional arts and crafts.

Greg Johnson, teaching a moccasin-making class on Facebook Live.

Instead, he’s sending out packages of materials, for making Ojibwe moccasins, for example, then inviting people to join him online to learn how to make them.

The drawing, the stitching, and the beadwork are all done deliberately. It takes patience, and several hours of work over multiple videos, to complete each pair of moccasins.

“Making moccasins, it’s important to do your stitching right and everything proper,” Johnson told his students in one video. “We have a responsibility to do things just as good, if not better, than the way the old people did a long time ago.”

Credit Jason Bresette
A pair of moccasins made by Jason Bresette as part of Greg Johnson's class.

In years past, classes like his would be taught in person. But the connectedness of the internet has allowed him to keep sharing arts and culture.

“When [the pandemic] hit, [the online option] was the answer for everything. You could teach people remotely, and that’s what we did,” Johnson said.

Now, connected by the internet and a need for hope in the middle of a cold winter, Native arts are blossoming.

“It’s almost like a renaissance kind of thing happening. There’s a lot of people, Native artists, putting out some fantastic, amazing work,” Johnson said.

Producing Native artwork during the first part of the pandemic was the easy part for Michelle Reed.

“From March 13 to June 1, I sat and I did art. I sewed. I beaded,” Reed said.

But then, she tried to put on some of her dance regalia.

“That’s when I realized how much weight I had gained. I couldn’t tie my belt,” said Reed. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is crazy.’”

Reed is another Lac du Flambeau tribal member, and she lives in Crystal Falls, Michigan.

Credit Michelle Reed
Michelle Reed.

In addition to her artwork, she’s a Native dancer, and also manages cultural events at the Waaswaaganing Living Arts and Culture Center in Lac du Flambeau.

Her pandemic-induced sedentary lifestyle?

That wasn’t okay with her.

Through her company, N8V Dance Fitness, she started doing daily Facebook Live sessions, inviting people to work out to the rhythm of contemporary Native songs and powwow songs.

Most days, Reed broadcasts to her thousands of viewers from her home, but the videos often show her in full, colorful regalia outdoors, ignoring the snowy ground to dance in the elements.

Many times, she gives away a piece of her beadwork after drawing a winner from online workout attendees.

Reed said the five-day-a-week routine habit is just as important for her as for her viewers.

“It’s become a really good motivator for me and for other people, too,” she said. “I feel it’s very important during this pandemic to continue working out, to continue preparing for that time when we can get back to dancing.”

Staying connected with Native culture, she said, is just as important as staying connected to physical fitness.

Greg Johnson works on a pattern for moccasins.

Greg Johnson’s Ojibwe name is Biskakone, which means “Sparks a Fire.”

Of course, no one would argue the pandemic has been a blessing.

But perhaps it’s been an unexpected spark to Ojibwe culture, as Johnson mentioned in one of his classes.

“Who would have thought we’d be learning how to make something as historically amazing, just sitting at home, chilling, drinking tea, and talking over the internet?”

To learn more about Johnson's classes, send him a message on Facebook.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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