Choice to ‘sit it out or dance’ comes easily to Cloquet studentLast August, sixth-grader Cody Tesser was selected for the honor of Senior Brave at the Grand Portage Powwow, based on a background essay on the significance of his dance regalia and the skill he demonstrated as a grass dancer.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
The Native American grass dance
A dominant legend regarding the origins of the Native American grass
dance is that a Northern Plains boy, born handicapped yet yearning to dance, was told by his medicine man to seek inspiration in the prairie. Upon doing so, the boy had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses; he returned to his village, shared his vision, and eventually was given back the use of his legs through the first-ever grass dance. Read more at
Cody Tesser is much like your ordinary “almost-12-year-old” (“I’m kinda like 11 and 75 percent!” he explained). He plays football, he’s learning hip hop, and he loves video games and skateboarding. But Cody has also managed to accomplish something extraordinary in his young life – he’s overcome struggles with epileptic seizures and ADHD to excel in the things he loves the best.
Last August, the Cloquet Middle School sixth-grader was selected for the honor of Senior Brave at the Grand Portage Powwow, based on a background essay on the significance of his dance regalia and the skill he demonstrated as a grass dancer.
“When they announced that I had been selected,” he said, “my mom started crying.”
Perhaps that was because his mother, Tanya Nelson, a receptionist at the Min No Aya Win Clinic in Cloquet, was instrumental in helping Cody realize his dream.
“I’d been to powwows before I ever started dancing,” he explained. “I used to just walk around and look at stuff and then go sit down, but I really wanted to be a dancer.”
The first time Cody joined in with the dancing was with his mom at the Fond du Lac Veterans’ Powwow a couple of years ago.
“At first it was like, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’ but I just watched the dancers and learned from them and did what they did. My mom taught me some things as well,” he said.
After that, he decided he really wanted his own outfit. He was interested in becoming a grass dancer, whose outfit is composed of colorful strings or yarn resembling swaying grass. Dance outfits were costly, however, and his mother said she couldn’t afford one. Then, she came up with an inspiration.
“My mom traded an elk antler with dream catchers on it to a woman named Roberta Welper, who made my outfit for me,” said Cody. “I picked blue for the sky and green for the grass.”
He admitted it took a little practice at first to don all of his dance regalia, but now it only takes him about 10 minutes to get ready for a powwow.
Cody has been dancing for two years now, all the while hoping to one day earn the honor of Senior Brave at Grand Portage, where his father resides. This year proved to be his year, and after earning the honor, he has danced at many events representing his title in such places as Cass Lake, Red Lake, Hinckley, Grand Portage, Fond du Lac and, most recently, at the Sobriety Powwow at the Indian Center in Minneapolis on New Year’s Eve.
“One of the things he likes best about it,” said good friend Darwin Diver, “is that he’s not at the back of the pack anymore. When they come in for the Grand Entry, he’s in front and they introduce him as the senior brave.”
Cody’s accomplishment is all the sweeter because he had a tough start in life. Around the age of 5, he began suffering from epileptic seizures, a condition that he inherited from both sides of his family. “My momewould tell me to go and get the milk at dinner time,” he related, “and I’d be standing there and just kind of go blank. One time I was riding my four-wheeler and I froze as I was going down the street. I didn’t come out of it until I was halfway down the road.”
He was also diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and began taking medications to control it, as well as the seizures. At one point, he took up to 200 pills a month, but for the past two years he has been seizure-free, he’s down to only a couple pills a day and his appetite, which was previously almost non-
existent, has begun to flourish.
“He was going to be in football last year,” related Nelson, “and he only weighed in at 63 pounds. Now he weighs something like 86 pounds.”
“Last night we had spaghetti, and I ate three plates full and three glasses of milk!” Cody attested. “I’m hungry all the time.”
Last year, he drew a picture of an eagle for a contest to come up with a logo for the Indian Education Program at the middle school. He won, and now everyone in the program has a T-shirt with his eagle picture printed on it.
“I had to try a couple of times
because it was pretty hard, with all of the feathers and things,” he admitted.
He also takes hip hop classes after school on Wednesdays and is involved in bowling every Thursday, receiving a plaque last year for bowling over a 200.
He works on a number of arts and crafts with his mother, such as leather and beadwork, as well as doing some whittling as well, and he’s learning the Ojibwe language.
In school, he does well, earning mostly As and Bs, and when asked what his favorite subject is in school, he didn’t hesitate before declaring, “Lunch!”
“Actually, my favorite subject is math because it doesn’t involve remembering stuff like in social,” he went on to say. “First, we do a lot of worksheets until we get the hang of it and then we take the test. Today, I got all of them right on a worksheet where we had to convert fractions into decimals and decimals into percents.”
Cody is hoping to compete for Grand Portage Senior Brave honors once again next August.
“I’m going to go for it again because it’s really fun traveling. I also enjoy the fry bread!” he added with a grin.
His mom said, based on how fast Cody is growing, he will no doubt need a new outfit by then, and she’s planning to make a quilt to trade for one.
Whether Cody retains the senior brave title or hands it over to someone else, his family plans to abide by the Native American tradition of having a “giveaway” of gifts for all in attendance in gratitude for their support during the year.
He said dancing and earning the title of Senior Brave have made him feel good about himself, knowing he can do something that not everyone else does.
Cody was recently declared seizure-free, said his mother, and was able to stop taking his seizure medication.
“Even though he is not able to ride a four-wheeler or participate in his school swimming class for six months,” she stated, “he is finding other ways to positively fill his time.”