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James Clark grew up in Blaine but spent summers, weekends and holidays on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, where his great-grandparents lived. He attended powwows, birthdays and funerals, trying to absorb whatever he could of his ancestors' traditions, feeling a sense of being home.

Because he is half Native American and half European descent, he often felt like a bit of an outsider, but longed to know more.

"I didn't know the language, I didn't know the culture, I wasn't taught by these great teachers," said Clark, 24. "I was yearning to belong to something ... to be like them. I saw it as a kind and comforting culture, loving and caring."

Now he's found a way to immerse himself in that culture — to learn more about his ancestors and, he hopes, help keep their knowledge alive for future generations.

"I'm helping people learn the language (the Ojibwe word for the language is Ojibwemowin) that other people tried so hard to repress," said Clark, whose name in Ojibwe is Ozaawaanakwad.

Clark, a 2020 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, is doing the work through Lead for Minnesota, the state chapter of the national Lead for America, a program that provides fellowships to recent college graduates so they can perform service projects in small communities facing challenges with limited resources.

The program was started by a group of recent grads who saw the value of returning to small-town America rather than the usual route of pursuing lucrative careers — consulting, tech, finance, law — in big cities, said Benya Kraus, one of the original organizers and executive director of Lead for Minnesota.

Clark's efforts are inspired, in part, by his great-grandfather and namesake, Jim Clark, or Naawigiizisiban in Ojibwe, who himself worked to pass the language and the Ojibwe culture (gidizhitwaawininaan) to people on the reservation.

James Clark with his namesake and great-grandfather, Jim Clark.
James Clark with his namesake and great-grandfather, Jim Clark.

Provided

The elder Clark was among the many Native children who, throughout much of the 20th century, were taken from their homes by white officials and sent to boarding schools where they were forced to speak English. They were instructed to shed traces of their heritage and assimilate into mainstream, non-Native culture.

"They tried to get them to assimilate," James Clark said. "They were physically harmed. [The school officials] wanted to erase who they were. The slogan was, 'Kill the Indian, save the man.' "

As a result, several generations of Native Americans grew up with limited or no knowledge of their ancestors' language. But unlike many, Jim Clark retained fluency in his native tongue.

"He never lost who he was," Clark said.

Attitudes toward the value of Ojibwe culture changed somewhat in later decades. Jim Clark lived for much of his life in Minneapolis, where he taught the language in public schools. In the 1990s, he moved back to the reservation, where he kept teaching — language, customs, skills, anything he could share.

"He was kind of an adviser to people," James Clark said. "He was very trusted, very humble."

Jim Clark was so widely respected that when he died, people came from all over the state to attend his funeral, James said.

In his Lead for Minnesota fellowship role, Clark spends time on the reservation reading, watching videos and building relationships with elders who've been contracted to help with the project. He visits them, bringing tobacco to show he's requesting a favor, asking that they help him learn the language and cultural traditions.

"We grew up with Ojibwe language," said Bette Sam, 83, a relative of Clark's and among the elders from whom he's been learning. "We didn't speak English until first grade."

"The band needs people who are well-versed and culturally appropriate," Clark said. "I can speak some of the language. I understand the culture. I can do, not a lot, but some of the [cultural practices]."

Some of those practices are colorful, such as the spirit dishes made before holiday meals. A spoonful of each food on the table is gathered on a napkin, coffee filter or leaf, then taken out to the woods to be set out or burned.

"Spiritually, it gets sent up to our ancestors that are in the spirit world and it feeds them, almost," Clark said. "It nourishes them, so they eat with us."

Other practices are more subtle, such as young people automatically granting respect to elders.

"They're the higher-ups at a company, so to speak, kind of like our bosses," Clark said. "They have that experience under their belt to guide us through the jobs we're going to be doing."

Now they're helping guide Clark in his preservation mission. Some attend cultural events, or do what Clark calls "at-home practices."

But there are a lot of different aspects to his culture beyond harvesting activities and religious ceremonies, he said.

Some keep cedar on top of their doors to promote good energy throughout the house, or put out tobacco every day. Some people smudge, a ritual in which sacred herbs and medicines are burned for cleansing or health purposes.

"They know much more," Clark said, "that I haven't even learned yet."