Dick Mindykowski hands Tori Thompson a leather strap to begin making her necklace.
As he enjoyed his lunch while visiting social studies classes at Winona Middle School last week, Native American artist and craftsman Dick Mindykowski couldn’t help but notice sixth-grader Tori Thompson on the playground playing basketball.
“I think you missed every shot you took,” he told her later, in front of the whole class. “But you kept shooting them.”
He singled her out not to tease or ridicule her. Far from it. Instead, Mindykowski lauded her resilience and persistence.
That was one of the central themes of Mindykowski’s visit to the middle school. He’s been coming for the past few years since meeting a teacher at the Great Dakota Gathering, and it’s one of teacher Toni McDevitt’s favorite days of the year.
After a few minutes, it was easy to see why.
Mindykowski engaged the students from the start with a craft-making activity. One by one, the students came up to the front of the room — Thompson was first — and they got to pick either a deer antler or a bison tooth to be the centerpiece of their beaded necklace.
As they gathered their material, Mindykowski, who lives in Altoona, Wis., and is a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, shared pieces of the Ojibwe culture and why he often finds himself living up to the meaning of his name — “Standing One.”
“I’m one of the top Ojibwe trappers in the three-state area,” Mindykowski said, referring to native lands in northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin and northern Michigan. “But they (wardens) don’t believe I have tribal rights because of my skin and my last name.”
Rather than lay down, Mindykowski fights for what he believes in. He fights for what is his. He encouraged the students to do the same.
As the students picked out beads for their necklace — they were making a “Journey of Life” necklace, and he told them to pick out one bead for every year in their age — he asked them a simple, yet complicated question, “What is a hero?”
Someone who helps others, they said.
He then told them they all have the ability to be a hero. He shared a story from when he was younger, when he and a friend were setting a beaver trap on the ice, and heard screams for help. A 6-year-old girl had fallen through the ice. They immediately sprung into action and pulled the girl from the ice.
He told the students they can be a hero for someone else, too.
He encouraged them to raise their hand and ask questions in class, because you may be helping someone else who has the same question but is too shy to ask it themselves. He encouraged them to turn negatives into a positive, citing more stories from his life where that was the case.
Then he proved it one more time. He called Thompson back to the front of the class and presented her with a copper coin with an eagle on it, meaningful symbols in the Ojibwe culture.
“You guys are the future,” he said to the class. “Go to school. Learn. I believe in you.”