Lisa Skjefte, an American Indian community liaison at Children’s Minnesota, was about to start her rounds in the hospital to meet and greet all of the American Indian babies in the special care nursery and neonatal intensive care unit.
On that spring day in 2015, however, something felt odd.
“It didn’t feel culturally appropriate to go and meet these new little ones without a gift welcoming them into this world,” Skjefte said.
Skjefte, a member of the Red Lake Nation of Ojibwe, started speaking with other members of her community, and that led her to form a partnership with All My Relations Arts, a contemporary American Indian fine art gallery in Minneapolis. Together they set out to make moccasins for Indian babies needing special care.
Her vision was to have the moccasins represent a celebration of the baby’s life, and show the children are now a part of a loving community despite their health challenges.
Community is very important to Skjefte, and she wanted to make sure that building a strong community and collaboration was incorporated into her new idea. She continued to work with All My Relations, Children’s Minnesota and members of her community for this new project. Graci Horne, a curator for All My Relations, came up with the program’s name; The First Gift. The program continues to partner and collaborate with Children’s Minnesota and now also works with Two Rivers Gallery.
It is very important to Skjefte that the program is a partnership and not just one person.
“I never say I founded it, but I created it with the community,” Skjefte said.
Every year about 50 babies receive moccasins; 30 are inpatient and 20 are given to the community. The program continues to encourage members of the native community to volunteer to make the shoes, and hand-stitch and bead traditional moccasins to gift to the babies. The moccasins, despite their small size, represent hours of dedication. The program ranges from about 20 to 40 volunteers per session at the Two Rivers Gallery.
Skjefte explained that about 20 women have come to every moccasin-making session for the past three years, since they started, and haven’t missed a single one.
“I think that it’s because of the community building,” she said. “It feels good that you are invested and doing something for babies in our community.”
As the project has continued, some of the volunteers have been very supportive and were extra helpful in some situations. Skjefte explained that when she was running late one day, some of the volunteers taught newcomers how to stitch the moccasins.
Skjefte has fostered children and it is very important to her that the children know their culture, even from a young age. She shared a story about a baby she fostered named Myla. The baby was always welcome to come to the sessions and sat and watched the women bead. Even as a baby, Myla enjoyed and celebrated the space.
“When she was 2 years old, we would drive up to the American Indian Center. She would start clapping and say ‘Yay’ because she was excited,” Skjefte said.
On occasion, families will reach out to the organization and thank it for its work. Skjefte recalled a family who had reached out to her via e-mail right after their daughter’s first birthday. She said the family was grateful to The First Gift. For them, the moccasins symbolized a clear path for their daughter, a journey that will continue to connect her with her culture.