Michael Smith Jr. knows the importance of a name.

For many people, their names are given at birth. But in Smith Jr.'s Ojibwe community, names are given as a rite of passage.

"Each name is as unique as the person who receives it," said Smith Jr., who was born and raised on the Leech Lake Reservation in north central Minnesota.

That's why the program Smith Jr. helps run as a Community Cultural Advocate, called Leech Lake Family Spirit, provides resources for people in the Ojibwe community to ensure they have a naming ceremony.

The naming ceremony is just one of many ways the Leech Lake Family Spirit program is doing life-changing work to help families on the reservation connect with their culture and improve their overall quality of life. It includes things like supporting new mothers and young people, providing 63 lessons for families from pregnancy to 3 years of age, teaching the language and much more.

"What is fulfilling for me is to be able to assist individuals, and our goal is to improve quality of life," said Rick Molacek, also a Community Cultural Advocate.

The program teaches traditional Ojibwe ways to future generations and shows parents how to raise their children to be a part of their culture.

After more than 100 years of generational trauma through wars with early settlers, much Native culture has been erased. It's left many people with no clue on how to do things like connect with an elder, find traditional medicines or experience rites of passage like the first walking ceremony and the naming ceremony, Molacek and Smith Jr. said.

That's where Leech Lake Family Spirit comes in. Smith Jr. and Molacek have regular check-ins with families and do house visits to drop off anything from food to diapers to traditional medicine.

Recovery of culture is key to Smith Jr. and Molacek's work. They explain rites of passage and passing down traditional ways to children. They show how traditional medicine like sage and cedar bows grow from the land and how to collect it. They also educate on berry picking and tapping maple syrup from trees. Instruction can be provided on growing and/or collecting, and curing traditional medicines such as tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, cedar and more.

Naming ceremonies are an important part of Ojibwe culture. Getting a name is a simple process that is an all-day celebration. Names are usually given to young people, but anyone at any age can receive a name.

"We've had people that are in their 60s and 70s that haven't gotten their names," said Smith Jr., who has yet to receive his own name, but has named other people.

The first step in getting a name is to find a trusted person to give a name. This person is usually an elder. If so, the tradition is to offer tobacco.

Smith Jr. describes how the name can come from a dream, or sometimes it comes from something in the world around the person being named or from prayers.

"There is so much beyond what we physically see," Smith said.

To finalize the rite of passage, a name is shouted. That is the child introducing themselves to each of the spirits.

Once the name has been said, a celebration begins, filled with food and gifts and most important, family. Celebrations last for hours as this rite of passage represents a sense of community.

Smith Jr. and Molacek have helped with a few naming ceremonies in their time.

Smith Jr. was raised traditionally on the Leech Lake Reservation.

"I was born and raised about probably 5 miles up the road from our current office location. This is very close to home for me," he said. "Some of our clients are actually my neighbors."

In the end, the program has been drawing interest in Leech Lake, and people have reached out to participate in the program. Smith and Molacek see hope for the future of their community, and the improvements being made.

Smith said, "We're shaping our identity in toward the future, and retaining things of the past is just beautiful. I think that that's what makes our community so unique."

ThreeSixty Journalism

These stories were written by ThreeSixty Journalism's summer 2022 News Reporter Academy high school students. The academy and its theme of holistic health equity were supported by Center for Prevention at Blue Cross Blue Shield of MN, which connected students with story topics and sources.

ThreeSixty Journalism is leading the way in developing multicultural storytellers in the media arts industry. The program is a loudspeaker for underheard voices, where highly motivated high school students discover the power of voice and develop their own within ThreeSixty's immersive college success programming. Launched in 1971 as an Urban Journalism Workshop chapter, since 2001 the program has been part of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas. To learn more about ThreeSixty Journalism, visit threesixty.stthomas.edu.