Lisa Skjefte, an American Indian Community Liaison at Children’s Minnesota, was about to start making her rounds in the hospital to meet and greet all of the new Native babies in the Special Care Nursery and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
On that spring day in 2015, however, something felt odd.
“It didn’t feel culturally appropriate to go and meet these new little ones, without a gift welcoming them into this world,” Skjefte said.
Skjefte, a member of the Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe, started speaking with other members of her community, and that led her to form a partnership with All My Relations Arts, a contemporary American Indian fine art gallery. Together they set out to make moccasins for Native babies needing special care.
Her vision was to have the moccasins represent a celebration of the new baby’s life, and that the children are now a part of a loving community despite their health challenges.
Community is very important to Skjefte and she wanted to make sure that building a strong community and collaboration was incorporated into her new idea. She continued to work with All My Relations, Children’s Hospital Minnesota, and members of her community for this new project. Graici Horne, a curator for All My Relations, came up with the program’s name; “The First Gift.” The program continues to partner and collaborate with Children’s Hospital and now also works with Two Rivers Art Gallery.
It is very important to Skjefte that the program is a partnership and not just one person.
“I never say I founded it, but I created it with the community,” Skjefte said.
Every year about 50 babies receive moccasins, 30 are inpatient and 20 are given to the community. The program continues to encourage members of the Native community to volunteer to make the shoes, and hand-stitch and bead traditional moccasins to gift to the babies. The moccasins, despite their small size hold a lot of love and represent hours of dedication. The program ranges from about 20-40 volunteers per session at the Two Rivers Art Gallery.
Skjefte explained that about 20 women have come to every moccasin-making session for the past 3 years, since they started, and haven’t missed a single one.
“I think that it’s because of the community building,” she said. “It feels good that you are invested and doing something for babies in our community.”
As the project has continued, some of the volunteers have been very supportive and were extra helpful in some situations. Skjefte explained that when she was running late one day, some of the volunteers taught newcomers how to stitch the moccasins.
Skjefte has fostered children and it is very important to her that the children know their culture, even from a young age. She shared a story about a baby she fostered. Her name is Myla. The baby was always welcomed to come to the sessions and sat and watched the women bead. Even as a baby, Myla always enjoyed and celebrated the space.
“When she was 2 years old, we would drive up to the American Indian Center. She would start clapping and say ‘Yay’ because she was excited,” Skjefte said.
On occasion families will sometimes reach out to the organization and thank them for their work. Skjefte recalled a scenario where a family had reached out to her via email right after their daughter had turned one. She said the family was grateful to “The First Step” for starting their daughter off on a clear pathway. For the family the moccasins symbolized a clear path for their daughter, a journey that will continue to connect her with her Native culture.