Grand Rapids — On a warm evening in mid-March, outside the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi building on State Street near downtown Grand Rapids, the rhythmic sound of drums could be heard.
Inside was a celebration of all things Native American, an annual drum feast gathering sponsored in part by the Native American Education Program at Grand Rapids Public Schools.
The event included food, drum circles, singing, some history and lots of fellowship as Native Americans from across the state came together to remember the old ways and prepare the next generation.
Helping create the festivities was Miranda Recollet, program coordinator for the Native American Education Program at GRPS since 2019.
And playing a special role in the evening were two 8-year-olds who are part of the program: Birdie Ives, a third-grader at Palmer Elementary; and Roger Ortiz-Wilson, a former GRPS student who is currently homeschooled because of the pandemic.
‘I 100% believe that this program is a lifesaver. It’s hard for me to sometimes even talk about it. I’m an adult child of the program, and being at an event like this, it feels like coming home. It feels just right.’– Becky Gann
They were the official “shkaabewis” for the night: the helpers, a position of high honor for a drum feast. Among their duties was partnering with Frank Sprague, a drummer and role model, to prepare the first plates of the evening for the drums.
Both Birdie and Roger were excited to have performed their duties, but also a little overwhelmed.
For Birdie, the chance to be part of the night was, she said, “very cool, an honor,” and then she was off to prepare for her part in an upcoming dance. Roger, meanwhile, was even more taciturn, and maybe hungry too, when asked by a visitor what he thought: “Good,” he said. “Can I get my food now?”
Bringing Together an Inter-generational Group
Recollet is Anishinaabe, was born in Petoskey and raised as a young girl on a small rural reservation on Manitoulin Island known as Wikwemikoong. She smiled as she watched young Birdie and Roger have their moment in the spotlight.
The chance to bring Native American GRPS students together with a larger, intergenerational Native American community is important, she said.
“We do a lot of events that welcome district families and their GRPS students,” Recollet said. “But we welcome the (Native American) community as a whole to this event, and that brings together an inter-generational group, people our younger students can interact with and learn from, people in leadership roles who look like them and talk like them. So these kinds of events are really important to our Native kids.”
Becky Gann, Roger’s mom, is a GRPS graduate of an alternative education program called Bimaadiziwin that was shuttered 15 years ago. She said she is grateful NAEP exists for her son and other Native American GRPS students.
“I 100 percent believe that this program is a lifesaver,” she said. “It’s hard for me to sometimes even talk about it. I’m an adult child of the program, and being at an event like this, it feels like coming home. It feels just right.”
Jennifer Ives, Birdie’s mom, is also a graduate of GRPS and Bimaadiziwin and was equally effusive about her experience and what her daughter now gets to experience.
“It’s super-duper important,” she said. “For her to be connected to other kids in GRPS who are like her, who share the same values, I can’t say enough about how much that means.”
‘Ask Your Elders for Help’
The words of George Martin were right in line with what Recollet said is important about the event. Described by Recollet as “a veteran elder and respected knowledge-keeper in Michigan’s greater Anishinaabe community,” Martin has been supporting the GRPS NAEP program for a quarter of a century and relishes the role he plays.
On this night, after welcoming attendees, he spoke directly to the young people.
“What’s your future?” Martin asked them. “What career are you going to do? You must plan that. You must stick to your plan. If you don’t know where you are from, you won’t know where you are going. And don’t be afraid to ask your elders for help.”
Recollet said that as the only district Native American Education Program in West Michigan, GRPS students, parents and families have learned to rely on it.
“We are completely inclusive,” she said. “We welcome all Native Americans regardless of tribal location or membership. Every day we strive to build bridges and make good connections. It’s important to us that we provide our district educators with firsthand knowledge on culturally appropriate content, resources and education.”
Wide Range of Opportunities
Patricia Rader echoed Recollet.
She is a new Title VI grant program specialist for the Native American Education Program and works to support the district’s Native American elementary students. The drum feast was her first event as a member of the NAEP team, though not her first exposure to the program. She is a GRPS graduate and said the district’s Native American programs were invaluable to her as a student.
“It kept me connected to community, gave me access to cultural teachings and art forms and opened up other educational opportunities that I would have missed if I wasn’t a part of the program,” Rader said. “I look forward to getting to know the students I’ll be working with, and I hope I’m able to help them as much as the program has helped me.”
The Native American Education Program was founded at GRPS in 1976 and is federally funded through Title VI and is exclusive to GRPS. Offerings include after-school groups, an annual powwow and drum groups for Native American students. It also sees staff, including Recollet, give presentations on Native American culture to all district students in grades K-12. And the program provides assistance with financial aid, college campus visits and preparing for college.