As they formed a circle for the night's round dance, high schoolers, graduates, parents and chaperones tossed their glittery high heels to the side of South High School's practice field.

Around 70 people — some dressed in ribbon skirts and ribbon shirts, others in color-coordinated prom dresses and tuxedos — gathered for Minneapolis Public Schools' first-ever Native Prom on Saturday night. Hosted by the city's Indian Education Department, Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center and the Division of Indian Work, the event promoted the theme "culture is prevention" while giving Indigenous students of the classes of 2020 to 2024 a chance to let loose after a year of learning in the pandemic.

Abby Peake, who graduated from Nawayee Center School in Minneapolis last year, didn't have a prom her senior year and hoped to meet new people.

She had gone to a friend's prom a few weeks back, but liked the fact that Native Prom attendees dressed in contemporary Indigenous regalia, and that the Little Earth Singers drum group was performing.

"It's not your average prom," said Peake.

The free outdoor event, which also featured a taco truck, a hair-sparkle station, a jewelry booth and a DJ and dance stage, followed South High's schoolwide prom May 22 and a districtwide powwow at the school June 5.

Native Prom was planned to indigenize modern prom by honoring Native youth and giving them a space to celebrate community and cultural traditions and values, said Lisa Skjefte, vice president of Kinooamaage Wii'gaming ("a place of learning" in the Ojibwe language) at the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center.

One is minobimaadizi — a way of life that means "the good life" in Ojibwe.

"When you're on that path of the good life, it's really about centering on community knowledge, centering on community investment in that future generation," said Skjefte, a 2001 South High graduate who grew up in south Minneapolis' Little Earth of United Tribes. "So, really being purposeful about investing in our youth and really centering on the idea that culture is prevention."

The Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center used a state grant to fund Native Prom, Skjefte said. At the June 5 powwow, the center gave out ribbon shirts and ribbon skirts to the 95 Native American high school students who graduated from Minneapolis Public High Schools this year. Potential promgoers could also choose from among 600 prom dresses donated to the center by the Swede Hollow Arts Refuge.

Miiskogihmiiwan Poupart-Chapman, a chaperone, wore the ribbon-skirt-inspired dress she made for her prom in 2019.

She learned to sew regalia while attending St. Paul Harding High School's American Indian Studies program. She also made fellow chaperone Milayka Downwind's ribbon-skirt-inspired dress with appliqué needlework.

"I wanted to make something that was like, prom-y, but then also like, culture," Poupart-Chapman said.

Ribbon shirts and ribbon skirts date to the 1800s and 1900s, when Native Americans learned sewing as a trade at boarding schools that the U.S. government forced Indigenous students to attend in Minnesota and elsewhere around the country, said South social studies teacher Vince Patton.

"This isn't like 1492, before Columbus came here — that tradition," he said. "This is more tradition that came from survival, resistance and resilience, which then we have adopted as a community at large, not just South High, but across our country, Turtle Island."

Patton, who is Oglala Lakota, teaches in South High's All Nations program, a culturally responsive Indigenous education open to any Native student in the district.

During the pandemic, Patton lost the experimental teaching opportunities he usually offers to help push Native students' graduation rate — fishing trips, camping trips to the Black Hills and Ely, Minn., and buffalo hunts at Pine Ridge Reservation, his home. He hoped Native Prom could give students a night of connection to remember, he said.

Ana Carbajal, who graduated from FAIR High School for the Arts this year without a prom experience, attended Native Prom with her boyfriend. Sitting at a table decorated with red, yellow and white flowers, and wearing a blue-green dress she'd bought for the event, she was excited to have a prom.

"It's something I've been wanting to go to since I was a freshman," Carbajal said.

After an opening song from the Little Earth Singers and the round dance, attendees heard from speaker Fred Desjarlait of Red Lake Reservation, who heads Anishinaabe Urban Culture Connection, and watched a rap performance in English and Dakhota languages from recording artist Reuben Kitto Stately.

"We need each other," Stately said. "So we're showing these kids how to utilize each other and make relationships with one another."

Before it was over, attendees chatted about making Native Prom an annual event, ate ice cream bars and finished the night on the dance floor.

Sita Baker of Minnehaha Academy's class of 2020 enjoyed seeing other people at Native Prom and having a night to "get ready for" after finishing school in the pandemic.

"I feel like I'm recognized in some way because it's an event for people like me," Baker said.

Madison Karas • 612-673-7394