Editor’s Note: For Native American Heritage Month, the Traverse City Record-Eagle is highlighting profiles of Anishinaabek neighbors of the region.

ELK RAPIDS — In a hoop house nestled on the property of Elk Rapids High School, laughter of a half a dozen students echoes into the fall air.

Inside the plastic-draped, arched structure, freshly picked cedar and pine permeate the air as members of the Elk Rapids Indigenous Youth and Friends club work to assemble holiday wreaths.

The wreaths will be sold for the third year to raise money for enrichment and cultural activities that provide student members with educational, and hands-on experiences. The group also aims to helps to bridge the gaps between communities and students with service projects.

Together in unison, the hands of sisters, Ariel Hendershot and Ciarra Parney, work together to sort through a pile of pine and cedar clippings. Both are from 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 provide her a sense of community since she joined in 2019.

“This group feels like a family ... it has really brought me closer to my culture,” Hendershot said.

Parney, along with her sister said her involvement has also helped helped her spread awareness of her culture community-wide and she hopes she can spread awareness about the diversities of Native American tribes.

“We’re not all the same, we’re really diverse,” Parney said.

She said she she hopes to help change the way society perceives Native Americans, helping pivot away from harmful stereotypes by showing her Potawatomi culture with the community.

Working alongside the group of students was Native Student Liason and Tutor for ERHS, Monica Willis and Mike Pelofske. They each walked around the tables offering guidance on how to arrange the wreaths for a perfect amount of “fluffiness.”

The pair launched the group in 2014 with the goal of instilling healthy mindsets for young, Indigeous students.

Willis said it is important for children to have a community to grow up with and a place to find mentors. She said the group’s activities not only give the students a community to be a part of, but one that they can give back to as well.

The group participates in many service projects, including community feasts, and annual bell ringing for the Salvation Army. The students also organize an annual winter snow snake family event, an Anishinaabek winter game played on a track of packed snow.

Willis said when students are involved in a close-knit community “their self esteem sky rockets.”

And all of the enrichment activities, including a trip to Yellowstone next spring are all earned, Willis said.

Dadrian Pitawanakwat, Anishinaabe of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians said he has been blessed to have “grown up in the program.”

“I’ve always had Monica and Mike,” he said. “They’ve always encouraged me to be proud of my culture.”

He said through the group he learned how to harvest traditional medicines, and how to care for the environment as young steward. He also said he experienced his culture and community in ways that may not have been available to him otherwise. It’s access to his culture for which he is grateful.

In 2018, Pitawanakwat, along with the other students of the group, hosted a community feast and water walk to honor water protector Josephine-baa Mandamin, who has since died.

“It was the first time I prepared many traditional foods, like Lake Trout and wild rice,” he said, adding that Pelofske and Willis showed the students how to forage for edible foods, like ferns in preparation for the feast.

Pitawanakwat said it was an honor to help carry the water in the walk and it helped shape his view on how he must help protect the waters of Michigan.

“I want there to be a bigger understanding of Native Americans,” Pitawanakwat said.

He added that he wants help break down barriers and connect the community with Anishinaabek perspectives on how to be a good steward for the land and waters.

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