The Detroit Lakes Drum and Dance team will be living out a bit of a dream this weekend, as they host the state competition for the first time ever.
It’s a goal the team has had almost since its inception 10 years ago.
Typically the school that wins state gets the opportunity to host the big event the following year, but last year’s state champion, Deer River, wasn’t able to host the competition. Next in line was Detroit Lakes.
“We’ve held invitationals the past three years, but nothing on this scale,” said DL’s Drum and Dance Coach Tom Mason, who also gets help from his wife, Tera, as they teach the art of Native American dance and drum to their young team.
Eight from Detroit Lakes will be competing this year — a small number compared to some of the districts coming in.
The competition is being held this Saturday, March 23 at the Middle School gymnasium starting at noon.
The K-12 event so far has close to 175 students from all over Minnesota registered to compete, starting with the youngest dancers, drummers and singers.
“The way it works is, if you’re running 6-8 grade girls jingle, they dance together,” explained Native American Education and Activities Coordinator Joe Carrier. “They are judged individually, but if they score points, those points also go to the team. It’s like a track meet that way.”
Carrier says when they got the news that Detroit Lakes had the opportunity to host the event, they jumped on it.
“We pride ourselves on our competitions and our facilities, and although it’s a lot of time and hard work to put something like this on, it also shows people that our community has a strong support for our Native American culture,” said Carrier.
Teams from St. Paul, Mille Lacs, Bemidji, Cass Lake, Red Lake, Ponemah, Waubun and White Earth will be dancing and drumming their way into the middle school Saturday for competitions on jingle dress, fancy shawl and traditional dance for the girls and grass dance, fancy dance and traditional dance for the boys, as well as drum and singing competitions.
Although the drummers and dancers have been practicing twice a week after school at Roosevelt, their dedication to the team also carries into their time at home, as they are required to make their own regalia, the Native American dress for the competition.
“These kids and their parents spend many hours in the planning, designing, sewing and beading,” said Carrier, “and by them learning to do this, it teaches them to take care of their regalia — to treat it as well as they would treat themselves.”
“And mom and dad won’t always be there to help if it tears or needs fixing,” added Mason, “so it’s a skill that I’m glad my parents passed onto me, and we will pass onto our children as well.”
Mason says although it’s exciting to host the state competition, he also believes the team has served a much deeper purpose over the past 10 years.
“When we first started it wasn’t about state or competing, it was about bridging gaps and barriers,” said Mason, “to show everybody that Indian people have a beautiful culture, and we’re very proud of it.”
Mason says he remembers a time growing up when racial tensions in the 70’s made for a rough time at school, and so watching the progress is heartwarming for him.
“At these performances, I always explain what the dances represent, and I’ll have non-natives come up afterwards and tell me they didn’t know about the history of these dances or the legends behind them,” said Mason, “and I see kids coming up to my dancers and telling them that what they’re doing is cool, and I see their faces light up.”
Mason believes the dancers on his team aren’t just getting physical activity and a deeper understanding of their culture, but they’re also building confidence.
“They realize that they can do something really good, and it shows them that they’re capable of doing other things, and pretty soon they’re going out for football or hockey because they now have the confidence to believe they can,” said Mason, who says past members of the Detroit Lakes team who have graduated are volunteering to come back to help host the competition this weekend.
“We’ve had some great kids come through this program who called us right up when they heard we were getting to host state and wanted to know what they could do to help,” said Mason.
The event is free and open to the public, including a feast at 5 p.m.