Reviving Culture at Leech Lake

The Family Spirit Program connects people on the reservation with forgotten culture.

Michael Smith Jr. knows the importance of a name.

Many people are given their names at birth. But in Smith’s Ojibwe community, names are given as a rite of passage. 

“Each name is as unique as the person who receives it,” said Smith, who was born and raised on the Leech Lake Reservation in north central Minnesota.

That’s why Leech Lake Family Spirit Program, which Smith helps run as a community cultural advocate, provides resources for people in the Ojibwe community to ensure they have a naming ceremony. 

Leech Lake
Family Spirit Program staff in Leech Lake pose for a picture at the Nurturing Fathers Program training. (left to right) Rick Molacek, Joe Johnson (trainer), Michael Smith Jr. (Courtesy Leech Lake)

The naming ceremony is just one of many ways Leech Lake Family Spirit Program is doing life-changing work to help people on the reservation connect with their culture and improve their overall quality of life. It includes things like supporting new mothers and young people, teaching the language and much more.

“What is fulfilling for me is to be able to assist individuals, and our goal is to improve quality of life,” said Rick Molacek, also a community cultural advocate.

The program teaches traditional Ojibwe ways to future generations and shows parents how to raise their children to be a part of their culture.

After so many years of generational trauma through wars with early settlers, much Native culture has been erased. It’s left many of their ancestors struggling to connect with elders, find traditional medicines or experience rites of passage, like the first walking ceremony and the naming ceremony, Molacek and Smith said. 

That’s where Leech Lake Family Spirit Program comes in. Smith and Molacek have regular check-ins with residents and community members and do house visits to drop off supplies like food, diapers and traditional medicine.

Recovery of culture is key to Smith and Molacek’s work. They explain rites of passage and passing down traditional ways to children. They show how traditional medicine, like sage and cedar bows, grow from the land and how to collect it. They also teach their community how to pick berries and tap maple syrup from trees. Instruction can be provided on growing and/or collecting, and curing traditional medicines such as tobacco, sage, sweetgrass and cedar.

Naming ceremonies are an important part of Ojibwe culture. Getting a name involves an all-day celebration. Names are usually given to young people, but people of any age can receive a name. 

“We’ve had people that are in their 60s and 70s that haven’t gotten their names,” said Smith, who has yet to receive his own name, but has named other people.

The first step is to find a trusted person to give a name. This person is usually an elder. If so, the tradition is to offer tobacco. 

Smith describes how the name can come from a dream, or sometimes it comes from something in the world around the person being named, or from prayers. 

“There is so much beyond what we physically see,” Smith said.

To finalize the rite of passage, a name is shouted. That is the child introducing themselves to each of the spirits.

Once a name has been said, a celebration begins, filled with food and gifts and, most importantly, family. Celebrations last for hours, as this rite of passage represents a sense of community.

Smith and Molacek have helped with a few naming ceremonies in their time.

Smith was raised traditionally on the Leech Lake Reservation.

“I was born and raised about probably 5 miles up the road from our current office location. This is very close to home for me,” he said. “Some of our clients are actually my neighbors.” 

In the end, the program has been drawing interest in Leech Lake, and people have reached out to participate in the program. Smith and Molacek see hope for the future of their community and the improvements being made.

Smith said, “We’re shaping our identity toward the future and retaining things of the past. It’s beautiful. I think that that’s what makes our community so unique.”

This story was written by ThreeSixty Journalism’s summer 2022 News Reporter Academy high school students. The Academy and its theme of holistic health equity were supported by Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield Minnesota, which connected students with story topics and sources.