ChangeMakers: Adrienne Benjamin, a master jingle dress maker, artist and activist

woman stands with daughter in wheelchair wearing traditional regalia
Adrienne Benjamin, 37, and daughter Bella, 17, stand together at Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota. Benjamin, a master dressmaker created an adaptive jingle dress for Bella, who is wheelchair bound.
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

Throughout November, MPR News is featuring Indigenous Minnesotans making history to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.

In 2018, Adrienne Benjamin really wanted to go to a pow wow. But she thought about her daughter, Bella, who is wheelchair bound. Realizing that Bella didn’t have a jingle dress, Benjamin, a master jingle dress maker, asked herself why and got to work creating an adaptive jingle dress, with jingles only on the front of the dress and in two pieces instead of one.

Part of Benjamin’s work is to normalize disability. Bella, 17, is nonverbal and has cerebral palsy with epilepsy. She entered Bella into a dance competition by posting a video online of her daughter dancing in her regalia. Bella won the people’s champion award and soon after people started to reach out, thanking Benjamin for shedding light on disability access in Indigenous dancing tradition.

“[Bella’s] got a fan club of her own and she's such a personality in her own right,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin, 37, also goes by Amikogaabawiikwe, her Anishanaabe name. She was born in a hospital in Onamia, Minn., and lives in Isle, Minn. She  has spent time in Rapid City S.D., and Minneapolis. She identifies an artist and a community activist. However, her work includes so much more. She is a master dressmaker, a mother of two, a writer and an organizer of youth programs on the Mille Lacs Reservation. 

Benjamin is Anishanaabe and a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Her dresses have been on display as part of the exhibit “Ziibaaska’ iganagooday: The Jingle Dress at 100” at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post. She has been awarded multiple honors and fellowships since 2016. 

Benjamin and her daughter are currently recovering from COVID-19. They both are jingle dress dancers. The pandemic has made her reflect on dancing and pow wows. 

“Just bring [them] back,” she said, “and I'll dance my hardest.” 

She also hopes that when they can dance again, “Maybe Bella will be the pioneer that will make other people in wheelchairs feel like they can be a jingle dress dancer, too.” 

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does it mean to be an Indigenous Minnesotan right now?

It means missing so many of the things that are a part of your identity that you'd never thought you'd miss. That includes creating art with others, ceremonies with others, also feeling erasure and in this big rise up that's happened. 

I don't want to take anything away from [the Black community], it's not like an Olympics thing, [but] I feel like often Indigenous people get lost in that racial conversation. We're still being erased. The “CNN something else” — that whole vibe. There's an erasure that people feel as Indigenous people. 

It's made me dig into my culture and faith, probably more than I ever had to, especially just having the COVID. My counselor was really good at directing me to — obviously, I didn't want to smoke my pipe — but just being near it. There's more trauma that we're feeling that we don't even realize because we've been through a pandemic before.

That's really a tie with the jingle dress, too. [It] came to being for Anishanaabe people during the last pandemic. I think we feel that in our blood more than we have even yet [begun] to unpack.

What figures have shaped you who you?

My grandpa is probably the person who molded me to be who I am the most, aside from Amikoban, Larry [Smallwood]. He led a life of service even until he couldn't anymore. His last job was delivering Meals on Wheels to elderly people. He just always had that caring heart. 

That was the kind of person my grandpa was: just constantly giving and always wanting others to be involved. And when I've really had the time to reflect and think about that  that was the start of it for me. He was the true level of community service.

I truly, truly believe that he had to pass away when he did to help me in a deeper way, like culturally, with my daughter and the stuff that I was going to come up on. He passed away in May 2003, three months before my daughter Bella was born. That was a crazy year of losing him but then realizing he was more powerful in passing and more what I needed. Gone then here. He's been there through all of it, just not in a way that we can see physically.

What's your vision for the future generations of Indigenous people in Minnesota?

woman stands in profile wearing regalia
Adrienne Benjamin
Kathryn Styer Martinez | MPR News

When I think about Indigenous future, it's hopeful because of our resilience.

There are people out there, and hopefully kids that I've worked with, who are going to become more badass than I ever am. And [when] I think about Indigenous future, it's bright and it's beautiful because we've never lost those things that are very important. 

That's what gives me the most hope. We've lost so much collectively as a people, as Indigenous people. But the one thing that they couldn't take away was our identity and our songs and our ceremonies — and those things that really give us that life. The language is still here, as little as it is, you know what I mean? I feel bad for other cultures that they don't have [those things]. As much as the collective trauma is sad, our collective resilience is stronger than the sad parts. 

Where do you feel most at home in Minnesota?

Behind my sewing machine. I zone out when I sew. I feel like the most at home is when I'm creating and I can really be anywhere. 

But there's one special place that I felt the most grounded. It's the place where I go drop tobacco and [when] I feel like I need to pray a little bit. It's this place where my grandpa used to take me, this bridge in [the] Chiminising [community], which means ‘big island’. It's probably the most prime real estate on Mille Lacs Lake and it's just this big island where all these really expensive houses are. That's one of my life goals — to have a house on Malone Island. That's my favorite spot where I feel the most at home.

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