Men of all generations drum together at EXPO Minneapolis.
For Kerry Benton, the drumbeat is the very pulse of his community, and he wants to make sure it’s healthy and strong, like the circle of more than a dozen men and boys of all ages who sing and play together.
Benton, 44, of St. Paul, Minn., is an employment counselor for the American Indian Family Center. He’s also the fathers outreach specialist for Ombi’ayaa Anishinabe Ininiiwug, which is loosely translated as “Rise Up Original Men.” The group has a focus on the physical, spiritual, mental, and cultural health of men in the Native American community in the Twin Cities—and part of that focus is on diabetes care and prevention.
“It’s for the guys, by the guys,” Benton says. “Things need to be done to begin healing our men, physically, mentally, emotionally, and, most importantly, spiritually.”
After consulting with elders in the community, Benton and the other men of Ombi’ayaa Anishinabe Ininiiwug began attending community cultural events. First, they just observed and listened. But slowly, they began getting more involved, from rebuilding a sweat lodge after its roof collapsed under snow to participating in the St. Paul Area Council of Churches’ Department of Indian Work and Family Education Diabetes Series. They’ve hosted diabetes-friendly feasts and invited the community to come. They’ve joined recreational sports leagues, working to become healthier individually, as a group, and as families.
It’s more than building the community from the inside, Benton says. It’s making it stronger and sharing that with the rest of the world. “People are observing the men coming together, being active together, helping in the community together,” he says. “That’s what it was about: … being active together and doing things together out in the open. There’s truth in what we do, there’s humility in what we do, there’s respect, there’s honor … because there’s a spiritual healing happening.”
And over the past two years, the few dozen men and their families have incorporated another part of their culture into the physical and spiritual side of their gatherings: They drum together and sing traditional songs, performing around the Twin Cities, including at the American Diabetes Association EXPO®, a free daylong health fair.
Jenni Hargraves, former executive director of the ADA’s Minnesota Area office, praised the group’s performance and the work it’s doing with Native American families. “Ombi’ayaa Anishinabe Ininiiwug is offering important education in a unique format that resonates with the Native American population,” she says. “It’s so important, as diabetes affects this community at a disproportional rate.” Some 16 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live with diabetes.
Benton says the group’s goal is to use tradition to improve the community’s well-being—way into the future. “What we’re doing is something that is not new. It’s been here,” he says. “We maintain a seven-generation mind-set to the things that we do.”