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Column: Round dance mischaracterized

Reyna Crow

In less than a month, four flash mobs in support of the grassroots indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection movement "Idle No More" were held in Duluth and Cloquet. Another was planned for this past week as the Budgeteer went to press.

A flash mob is a large group of people who gather, ideally in an instant, to perform a unified action in a public place, often a song or dance. In this case, participants are performing a round dance.

"The round dances were a family event," explains Joe Sutherland, a member of the Duluth Anishinaabeg community, who is from Canada. "In the wintertime, the men in each family would sing songs. ... It was told in the creation stories that the spirits communicate through songs. This is why we carry these traditions; this is why we sing today."

Sutherland said this event would differ from previous round dances in that jingle dress dancers -- symbolic of healing -- were planning to participate. Women wear brightly colored, handmade dresses embellished with ribbons and jingle cones, which evoke the sound of running water, strongly associated with healing.

"Any time I make a (jingle) dress, there is so much prayer, and what is prayer but love?" remarks Jill Hartlev of the Bad River reservation, one of the jingle dress dancer participants. "... not only in the making of the dress, and the actual dance, even (in) how you take care of it, and that love is where I think the healing comes from."

There have been some reports of flash mobs held with the intent of causing violence or destruction. For the most part, however, those intended as art or political or social statements seem to be enjoyed by passersby, and have been tolerated by the management of the malls or stores where they occasionally take place. They can draw large numbers of people who tend to spend money and, if positive in nature, can bring substantial publicity to the venues.

But some have been associated with controversy. In a message posted to the Facebook page for the Idle No More event at Duluth's Miller Hill Mall, Katie Altrichter, the facility's general manager, sought to head it off.

"We ask that your group not hold the protest tomorrow or at any other time in the future at Miller Hill Mall," she posted to the page directed toward a few hundred members of the Anishinaabeg community and their allies. "We reserve the right to protect our private property and business interests if the protest goes on as scheduled."

Though comments attributed to another Miller Hill Mall representative, as reported in the Duluth News Tribune, implied that the problem was a lack of insurance and paperwork, that is not the message the group gleaned from being told that the event would be unwelcome "at any other time in the future." The mall representative is also quoted as saying that the mall did not allow events of a "political" or "religious" nature there.

While it is true that INM has organized around gravely serious causes, and many supporters are inspired to rally around Attawapiskat (Canada) First Nations Chief Theresa Spence, who has been on a hunger strike since Dec. 11, the characterization of the round dances as "protests" is not just incorrect, it's insulting.

Not understanding is one thing. Telling a substantial segment of the community that it is unwelcome to make use of the mall -- which does seem to gladly function as a sort of public square when it comes to Santa Claus and Christmas trees -- to hold a brief and joyous dance with song reflecting traditional Anishinaabeg cultural values -- is a message this community should be ashamed of.

The round dance is a wonderful and unifying experience to either observe or participate in, and the planned jingle dress dance is truly a gift from the Anishinaabeg community to all people of Duluth. We should not only embrace this gift of healing, but join in the spirit of hope, for a better future for all of us, in which it is intended.

Reyna Crow lives in Duluth.

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