A Cumberland family is experiencing “Mino Bimaadiziwin,” which is the Ojibwemowin phrase for “the good life” as they create products for Native and non-native Americans alike.
Tom and Melissa Fowler and their six children, who live at the Maple Plain Reservation, are happy for an opportunity to share about their life during Native American Heritage Month.
She shared, “My name is Melissa Fowler. Niigaanigaabowikwe is my Anishinaabe name. It translates to ‘first standing woman.’ I am a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and have lived in Polk and Barron counties most of my life.
“My husband Thomas is a St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin tribal member. His Anishinaabe name is Ogimaawajiweb, which roughly translates to “chief on a mountain.”
“Together we are raising six children on the St. Croix reservation.” All six have Anishinaabe and English names.
Art is instinctive
“Art is something very instinctive for Native people,” Melissa explained. “For centuries we’ve used what we had at our fingertips to create art, regalia and items we would use in everyday life.”
Thomas has had a lifelong love of art—drawing, sculpting and wood burning. Those skills combine well with Melissa’s talent for making bead work and birch bark crafts. Sometimes Tom will wood burn an item and then Melissa will do bead work on it, both of them merging their positive energy into one piece.
“Collaborative pieces are by far the best pieces to make because a little bit of both of us go into it,” Melissa said.
Another of Tom’s hobbies is pipe making, using sumac or cedarwood for the stem and pipestone. He said handcrafted pipes are not for sale as they are considered sacred and used during ceremonial times.
He has also helped members of the St. Croix and Bad River with canoes—making one from scratch and restoring another.
“Officially we started Creatively Indigenous back in May 2018,” shared Melissa. “I was working in social work, and Tom was a stay-at-home dad and foster parent at the time.
“It started out as a hobby—our self care. We made 15 pairs of birch bark earrings and sold them in 2 days. I brought them to work, and they sold effortlessly. It was obvious that this was something bigger than just a small craft project.
“We kept at it, and in September 2018, I quit my job and jumped into Creatively Indigeneous with both feet,” Melissa said.
Those attending the flea market this past summer at Pioneer Village Museum at Cameron may have seen Melissa and her 16-year-old daughter Arianne selling their handcrafted jewelry and dream catchers.
“Being in connection with our culture every day and having the ability to support our family in the way that our ancestors had is very empowering,” she said. “It’s allowed me to move out of the fast-paced chaos of ‘the modern world,’ out of an office and back into nature. It’s really put harmony and balance back into my life.”
“We are very meticulous with the process of harvesting our materials,” they shared. “We don’t just walk up to a birch tree, take the bark and leave. There is a process that goes along with harvesting materials from the Earth.
“Offering tobacco to the birch tree and giving our prayers and thanks is extremely important to us as Anishinaabe people. We are very mindful and careful about how we take the bark off the tree so that we do not harm the tree.
“Every process is about having respect for the plants, trees and animals that go into our art; these are the things that help us to be self-sufficient and provide for our family, and we are very humble and thankful for them. The process is important because we want to make sure that we are doing all of these things in a good way.”
They added, “Sharing a little Ojibwe knowledge, culture or language in our art is something that is really important to us because there was once a time when we couldn’t do this. There was once a time when our children were stolen from us and beaten for even speaking their own language. It wasn’t until 1978, which wasn’t so very long ago, that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act came into effect. Before this, Native Americans couldn’t fully experience our traditional way of being because it was illegal, and it’s the reason that a lot of indigenous people were disconnected from their culture.”
Through their website, creativelyindigenous.etsy.com, and Facebook, the Fowlers’ handcrafted items are gaining popularity among Native Americans and non-native Americans alike.
“Our business is mainly online, through out website and social media,” she said. “We have connected with other businesses who buy our work and then sell it in their gift shops or stores. We also display at craft shows, fairs and pow-wows.”
Their items can be found at gift shops at the Minnesota Institute of Art and the Seattle airport.
The Fowlers are also excited to participate for the first time at the annual Biboon Bimaadizimin (translated Winter Good Life) Holiday Market on Nov. 29-30 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the AICHO Gallery in Duluth, Minn. (That stands for the American Indian Community Housing Organization.)
“It’s a social connection,” Melissa said. “I’m really excited because other people I look up to will be there. It’s an awesome place to learn more about the culture and how to harvest materials. It’s a very empowering place to be.”
She added, “The Indigenous art arena is an extremely supportive and exciting place for us to be. It’s a place of knowledge-sharing, revitalization and celebration of life as Indigenous people. I’m always learning from my fellow Indigenous artists, not only about art specifically, but about Mino-Bimaadiziwin or how to live the good life.
“Native American leaders, artists, educators, entrepreneurs and professionals are my superheroes,” she said. “They are people for our kids to look up to.
“I really enjoy not only seeing all the beautiful pieces that an artist creates, but hearing the stories and emotions behind their work or what inspired them to make a particular piece. An artist’s work is so much more than the finished product. It is the story behind the piece. It’s the energy that went into the piece. Art is much more than a finished product; it’s a social connection.”