From Pandan Leaf to Birch Bark

I had been living in Bali, Indonesia, when I came to visit my relatives on the Leech Lake reservation. It was a regular trip I took with my parents each time I visited from abroad. My parents still lived on the East Coast at the time, so we would road trip out to Leech Lake and also to Turtle Mountain, North Dakota. It was always a nice holiday from Bali to come visit with family and check out the powwows. One particular year, we made it in time for the Fourth of July powwow in Cass Lake, Minnesota, and it was this powwow that changed the direction of my life in a substantial way.

My life in Bali, for lack of a better word, was different. The overall feel of the island is laid back. On the surface, it is a beautiful island full of happiness, spirituality, and culture. I enjoyed my life, my family of friends, balance of work and play, and whenever I was invited to a ceremony, I jumped at the chance. The Balinese Hindus are in constant preparation for ceremony. There are numerous ceremonies for various events in life and the alignment of the stars, plus the daily offerings they put out three times per day. They rise with the sun for the first offering of flowers, incense, and a cigarette; all neatly placed in a small tray made of banana leaf, held together with a small shard of wood. At midday, flowers and incense, but with a cracked egg perhaps. At sunset there’s a piece of candy, plus flowers and incense. Also, there are shavings of pandan leaf mixed in with frangipani flowers that smell like sweet butter. I would ask my Balinese friends about their ceremonies and reasons for them. I asked many questions; some were not answered for a long time. Eventually, I came to know a little bit about their ceremonies. For me, my life was set. I was in a beautiful place with beautiful people; I was living there indefinitely.

That indefinite feeling became definitive at that Cass Lake powwow. I was doing my usual visiting with family since our arrival the week before. I’d stay up with my cousin and we’d visit for what seemed like a few hours but which was actually ten! I went around and sat with my uncles and my auntie. It was always pleasant coming to visit with family, yet it was always great getting on the plane back to Bali too. Then, there I was sitting at that powwow with my parents and a few cousins and their little ones. I remember my little niece spinning around in front of me, and I took a photo of her. I remember my cousins’ smiling faces. We were just happy to be together. I remember the grass, flattened and sticky from the kids. I remember dancing with my dad in our regular clothes. He was ready to go, ready to dance, and I hadn’t seen him like that before. I remember looking out at the dancers when I sat back down and feeling so uplifted. I just felt good.

Sitting there, watching the dancers, a rush came over me, throughout my body, and I knew in that instant, right at that moment, that I was going to live with my family on the Leech Lake reservation. I knew then I wanted and needed to move “home.” I had never experienced anything like that before, and I hope I get to experience it again. That certainty was strong, and it led me to where I belong. I got on the plane back to Bali with tears in my eyes because I knew I would prepare to leave a place that meant a great deal to me. I believe Bali is responsible for my epiphany. I respected their sense of place and knowing their spirituality, and I realized I had come to know more about the Balinese Hindus than I had my own people.

Upon moving to Sugar Point, Minnesota, and living with my uncle, I immediately felt at home. I was welcomed like I had never left, yet I hadn’t lived there in the first place. That first summer, my cousin made me my jingle dress. It felt so good wearing my dress, offering asemaa (tobacco), and dancing. Each dancer has their own style of dance and unique style of wearing their outfit. Vibrant colors mingle from one outfit to the next in the dancing circle. We dance for our spirit, and this can be seen prominently in some dancers or just at certain times when the song moves you. After my first powwow that summer, I told my cousin, “It feels so good to be Indian!” She laughed hard with her head tilted upward, then shared her happiness for me. “I know what you mean, cousin,” she said, then laughed at me some more.

I have much to learn and will continue learning to follow the steps my grandmother and grandfather have taken and so on before them. I’ll be able to teach this to my daughter. This year, after offering tobacco in a birch bark dish to the spirit world, I’m going to start making my own syrup near the place where my grandparents had their sugar bush. I listen to an elder in my community and will continue to learn by experience and his guidance about getting the syrup just right. I know it’ll take years, maybe a decade or two, and that is fine by me. I’m surrounded by beauty here from the lakes and rivers to the woodland flora and fauna. I walk here and feel the roots extending from the soles of my feet into the earth with every step. I’m creating a path for my daughter with knowledge of our culture, language, and traditions, not just for her but for the community and our children for generations to come.

Michelle Marion attends Leech Lake Tribal College in Minnesota where she majors in business management. She is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community of Arizona, but was raised in Maryland by her adoptive Anishinaabe parents who have been pillars in her life. She currently resides in Minnesota.

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