The calling of a teacher: Artist profile on Denise Lajimodiere

This is the fourth in a series of profiles on the 2013 Community Spirit Awards recipients. In upcoming issues of e-Spirit, First Peoples Fund will continue to introduce to you the remarkable artists and culture bearers who are receiving the honor this year.

Denise Lajimodiere is a dancer, a poet, an artist.

But no matter what task is in front of her, she says she will always identify with one special calling.

“I’m a teacher at heart,” said Lajimodiere, whose passion for passing down the traditional dance of her Chippewa tribe has set her apart as a distinguished leader in her community of Moorhead, Minnesota.

Lajimodiere, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, has been named as a recipient of the 2013 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award.

A dancer of more than 40 years, she was one of the first members of her tribe to bring back the traditional jingle dress style of dance and has worked with girls and young women on the proper way to turn the jingles and make the dresses, belts, leggings and moccasins for their outfits. Her influence extends far beyond dance, community members say.

She has also worked to bring back birch bark biting, and will continue to give workshops on the art form, which dates back to the pre-Columbus era.

During the springtime, Lajimodiere helps host a ceremony in honor of the trees before peeling the bark. The layers, which are as thin as an onionskin, must be meticulously peeled. The larger the pieces, the better, she said, which is an incredible challenge because of the delicacy of the pieces. After years of experience, Lajimodiere can close her eyes and bite the bark with her eyeteeth, slowly loosening each layer from another.

“It takes a lot of practice,” she said.

Dance and bark biting are not the only outlets Lajimodiere has used to express her heritage and knowledge.

Lajimodiere is also at work on academic manuscripts, including research on boarding school survivors and dissertation research on Native American women leaders.

In her “free time,” she spends time writing poetry, which is sometimes only accomplished through writing or art retreats. She recently published a book of poetry called “Dragonfly Dance,” and has found that the peace and quiet of a getaway is important for her work.

“I just need time and space, away from the city and busy life,” she said.

Leslie LaFountain, an instructor at Turtle Mountain Community College, said Lajimodiere should be applauded for her tireless efforts to share the tribe’s traditions with new generations. Her patient and diligent work to bring back the traditional Jingle Dress style of the Ojibwa dance is especially inspiring. LaFountain said it was almost three decades ago that Lajimodiere was instrumental in reigniting the popularity of the tribe’s annual pow wow by forming a committee, fundraising and doing presentations.

To this day, the pow wows are a “source of great pride for this community,” LaFountain wrote in a nomination letter about Lajimodiere.

Lajimodiere works in Fargo, North Dakota, and returns to the reservation to make presentations, teach, and share her love of jingle dresses and dancing.

“Denise is a humble individual, champion dancer, life-long learner and an active participant in pursuits that foster public good,” LaFountain said.