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Moccasin-making program the First Gift benefits Native newborns

Cherise Browneagle's newborn Jacob Bellanger Jr., after he received his first pair of moccasins on February 20, 2016 at Children's Hospital.

Cherise Browneagle's newborn Jacob Bellanger Jr., after he received his first pair of moccasins on February 20, 2016 at Children's Hospital. Star Tribune/Elizabeth Flores

Moccasins aren’t just a way for Native newborns to protect their feet; the deerskin footwear is a cultural milestone of birth.

The First Gift, a program founded by Red Lake Ojibwe member Lisa Skjefte, brings Native community members together to assemble moccasins for Native newborns in the Special Care Nursery and NICU at Children’s Hospital. Every other week, volunteers gather at Two Rivers Gallery to learn how to sew and bead the moccasins while infusing the footwear with healing energy.

Gifts are one way to acknowledge and celebrate a baby’s entrance to the world. “We’ve always adorned our babies,” Skjefte says. “We decorate them as part of showing the importance that they’re here and being thankful that they’re here, that they chose this time, these families.”

Skjefte, who holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of Minnesota, recognized the need for First Gift several years ago after becoming an American Indian community liaison at Children’s. Located in a historically Native neighborhood, the hospital is working on equity measures to reduce the stark health disparities for American Indians. Focus-group research conducted by Children’s shows that there's mistrust in American Indian communities around the hospital’s Western medicine approach to wellness.

“We have our own forms of healing that are more than a prescription,” Skjefte says. “It became really important to figure out: How do we connect with Native families that are inpatient but also try to bring community to them?”

One way was through moccasins.

For almost three years, groups of 15 to 20 adults and teens of all skill levels have been meeting regularly to make the moccasins. Moms-to-be also participate in the program; they make a pair of moccasins for someone else’s baby and are in turn gifted with a pair for their baby-to-be. “Part of the traditional practice is you gift for someone else and someone gives to you,” Skjefte explains.

As volunteers work on the moccasins, they verbally share their tribal teachings with one another or talk about what’s on their minds. This togetherness fosters community and healing.

“This is what our ancestors did a long time ago. They sat around and they made things for their family,” says First Gift teacher Raine Cloud, who is Dakota. “It’s restoring those traditional ways, those ancestral ways. It’s a safe place.”

“Gathering together is a part of our tradition, so it feels good,” Skjefte says. “It creates a healing energy that we want to be a part of the gift.” Participants put that healing energy – along with good intentions, hopes, and dreams – into the moccasins they make.

Lisa Skjefte works on moccasins at the American Indian Cultural Center.

Lisa Skjefte works on moccasins at the American Indian Cultural Center. Star Tribune/Elizabeth Flores

In addition to being adorable, moccasins are also an important signifier of one’s tribe. Because of the diversity of tribes in Minneapolis, “we try to be really thoughtful about what their tribe is so we can give them tribally appropriate moccasins,” Skjefte says. Ojibwe moccasins, for example, are identifiable by their puckered toes.

Up to six different people might work on one pair of moccasins, which take two hours per pair to complete for an experienced shoemaker like Cloud. “We all really support each other and work together. We’re all really passionate about where these moccasins are going, so we put our best work into it,” she says.

Over 30 families at Children’s have received moccasins in 2017. Cloud has personally witnessed the reaction on recipients’ faces. “It’s really cool for me to be there from start to finish,” she says. “Teaching someone how to make the moccasins, watching four or five women make the moccasins, and then taking them over to the hospital and delivering them to a family and seeing the baby. For me, personally, that’s probably the best part of it.”

Skjefte hopes the program can extend its reach. Babyspace, a majority American Indian daycare located next to Little Earth, has expressed interest in a box of moccasins for their infant rooms. Ideally, the First Gift will find ways to contribute moccasins to similar organizations. Skjefte would also like to see tribes create their own version of the program.

For now, the First Gift volunteers will continue to gather every other week at Two Rivers gallery. Though anyone is welcome in the space, Skjefte intends for the program to be for self-identifying American Indians. As she says, “Every time Native people gather in a way like this, it’s making a plan for our future generations to be healthy and happy and vibrant.”

Finished moccasins are placed in a basket to be blessed with sage smoke and cedar from elders.

Finished moccasins are placed in a basket to be blessed with sage smoke and cedar from elders. Star Tribune/Elizabeth Flores