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Dancing together bridges cultures

While fancy dancer Larry Yazzie spreads his arms wide as he dances to Native American music in the gym at Carlton High School, Matiah Ojibway, Elva Kingbird and Kaitlyn Johnson get into the spirit of the dance. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com1 / 5
Jayden Swanson concentrates on his footwork while Ms. Adams, Mrs. Niemi, Kaari Jo Johnson, Kendal Davis, and Evan Streblow dance to the Native American music blaring out of a speaker connected to dance teacher Larry Yazzie's iPhone. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com2 / 5
Sixth graders at Carlton High School get their groove on during a dance session with Larry Yazzie, founder of Native Pride Dancers and a two-time world champion fancy dancer. Jana Peterson/jpeterson@pinejournal.com3 / 5
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Things have changed for Native American students since Christal Moose was a student at Carlton High School. They've changed more since Moose's Dad graduated from Carlton and even more since her daughter's grandmother was hidden by her parents with an elderly relative in the Ditchbanks area so she wouldn't be sent away to Indian boarding school, where Native kids were taught to adopt the language, religion and other cultural beliefs of the predominantly white culture.

Now Moose's own children and their peers attend schools where there are powwows, drum circles, Ojibwe language lessons and more -- all to promote and share the Native American culture that government tried to erase with its boarding schools in the first half of the 20th century.

In Carlton this week, the medium of choice was dance. Specifically, fancy dance, courtesy of Larry Yazzie and the Native Pride Dancers, who spent two days at the Carlton schools this week working with all of the students to help them tap into their own inner dancer.

"Our mission is to inspire, educate and motivate," explained Moose, who is the special projects and booking manager for the nonprofit group that Yazzie founded in 2003. "We also aim to break Native American stereotypes, using Native American song, dance and stories to bridge cultures. No matter where we go -- whether it's Amman, Jordan or Carlton, Minnesota -- when we present who we are, it helps those we interact with to think about who they are. Plus, around here, it helps people understand their neighbors."

On Tuesday morning in the gymnasium at Carlton High School, the sixth-grade students were obviously impressed as they watched two-time world champion fancy dancer Yazzie go through his steps. But the gym really started humming when it was their turn to take to the dance floor.

Jayden Swanson concentrated hard on trying to emulate Yazzie's exact steps, while Elva Kingbird alternated between enthusiastic dancing and dissolving in giggles, not uncommon for a sixth-grade girl. All of the students, however, took their turn in the middle when they formed a large dance circle, without too much prodding from the adults in the room.

"Hoo-cha!" Yazzie told the kids. "That means dance hard."

Carlton's new Indian Education Coordinator Ken Fox didn't dance with the sixth-graders Tuesday -- Moose did -- but he smiled as he watched the kids having fun trying a different style of dance.

Superintendent Peter Haapala credited Fox with bringing the group to the school district.

"I think it's one of the things that we've been missing," Haapala said. "The [Native American] culture has such richness, and we weren't taking advantage of it."

That same day, Haapala said the investigation of a local committee that previously oversaw federal and state grants for American Indian education is ongoing, after irregularities found in a 2011 routine school audit led the Minnesota Department of Education to analyze the past 10 years of committee spending.

"When we found potential problems, we had to report it to the office of the State Auditor and to local law enforcement," Haapala said Tuesday, when asked about the investigation. "Then it's hurry up and wait. People keep asking questions, but we don't have any answers yet."

In the meantime, the district is following a corrective action plan submitted Oct. 1 to the U.S. Department of Education. Judging by the reactions of the sixth-graders Tuesday, the students are happy the school is doing even more to educate all students about Native American culture.

So is Moose.

She figures dance is one of the best ways to get students to learn about the Native culture and themselves.

"Dancing really frees you to express yourself," she said. "Yes, there are formal steps but you customize the dance to reflect who you are."