Powwow dancing helps family heal after losing loved one

"When I danced that day, I felt him dancing with me," Cheyenne Christianson said.

Cheyenne Christianson is wearing a regalia dress that was specially made for her. It has the Detroit Lakes emblem, along with extensive beadwork and a green, flowing shall. The regalia is meant to resemble a butterfly.
Contributed / Brady Baxter

DETROIT LAKES — Cheyenne Christianson put on her regalia a month after her father passed from colon cancer. As each foot moved in measure with time, the long road to healing began for the Ponsford resident and her mother.

The daughter of Michelle and the late Gerald (Jerry) Christianson almost never had a chance to breathe.

“Jerry and I were living in Minneapolis at that time, and I went in for a regular checkup while he was at work,” Michelle said. “They couldn’t hear her (Cheyenne’s) heartbeat with the ultrasound.”

When the heartbeat was located, it was in a slow decline. Michelle was brought into the operating room for an emergency cesarean section. When Cheyenne was pulled into the world, she was two months early and weighed 4 pounds, 8 ounces.

With nourishment she found from a loving family, Cheyenne grew strong. When she learned to walk, she followed her dancing father around the house as he played powwow music.


“She would be right behind him,” Michelle said, adding her daughter was never taught powwow dances. “She just naturally picked it up; it’s in her blood. He was amazed that she caught on so fast.”

Cheyenne was in second grade when she competed at her first powwow. She hoped to receive the crown bestowed on the powwow princess. However, it went to someone else — time and time again. She recalled, her father said that she would always be “his little princess,” but to be a powwow princess, she needed to keep trying.

The late Gerald (Jerry) Christianson is pictured with his daughter, Cheyenne. The photograph was taken during Cheyenne's first powwow competition in Pine Point. She was in second grade.
Contributed / Michelle Christianson

The years passed. Cheyenne danced. No crown came. Between powwows, she fished with her father, shared goofball moments that created smiles and practiced dancing.

“Those two were like peas in a pod — same personality, a lot of the same features,” Michelle said.

Jerry was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away in October 2019. He was 52. Cheyenne was 11.

The last dance they shared was to a healing song. While Jerry wasn’t healed, maybe that was never his intent — maybe it was to help the wounded hearts left in his absence.

A month after her father died, Cheyenne stepped into her jingle dress regalia to dance at another powwow. She was a sixth grader.

“When I danced that day, I felt him dancing with me,” she said, noting the dance required the same footwork she learned while following her father around the house many years ago.


As she tried to process the emotions of dancing with her father’s spirit, a powwow princess crown came her way.

“I was surprised,” she recalled. “I never thought I would get it.”

Michelle Christianson and her daughter Cheyenne have found healing through dance after husband and father Gerald (Jerry) Christianson passed away.
Barbie Porter / Detroit Lakes Tribune

The crown came with a surprising turn of events. After dancing with her father’s spirit, Cheyenne found it difficult to dance again. Her emotions would overflow and tears would fall. While she felt weak, Cheyenne explained where she got the courage to dance again: Her mother.

“I think she realized how much seeing her dance healed me,” Michelle said.

Cheyenne, who is now 14, has since collected a few powwow princess crowns. Regardless if she earns another title, the healing in her family continues, step by step.

“I think he’d be proud of me,” she said.

“He sure would,” Michelle said.

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