Richfield High School freshman Niya Briggs is taking a History Through Music class this year and took the time to share her culture with her high school classmates. Niya offered to bring in a traditional dress and perform a brief dance to demonstrate the connection between Indigenous music and dance.
Niya is Native American and she credits her grandmother for keeping traditions alive in their family. “If not for her, we probably wouldn’t know we were Native,” she says. “I’ve gone to Pow-Wows with her since I was a baby.” Niya’s ninth great-grandfather was named Hole in the Day and was a Native American chief.
In her History Through Music class, Niya shared an important part of her cultural identity with classmates as she danced for them in a special dress called a Fancy Shawl, which is as unique as she is. Niya – with help from her auntie and grandmother – made her dress by hand. It took her about a year.
“The colors you see in my fancy shawl go with my Native name,” she explained. “My native name is GIIZHIGOOKWE, which means Sky Woman if you translate it into English. GIIZHIGOOKWE is one of the many Gods that lives up there with the Creator. I received colors with my Native name (the sky colors) and then I got one extra color that I picked, which was purple. So everything you see in the Fancy Shawl is coordinated to my name.”
More than tradition, dancing for Niya is freeing. “Dancing is a way for me to escape,” she said. “I got bullied a lot for being who I am or for not being Native enough or not being Black enough. Dancing healed me.”
Niya prefers to dance the Fancy Shawl, which she explained is relatively new to Ojibwe and Native cultures, but also does the Jingle Dress. In Ojibwe history, there is a story about a girl who was sick. Her people made her a dress – a Jingle Dress – and danced around her again and again. As they danced, she was able to stand, and eventually dance once more, wearing this healing dress. That was the beginning of the Jingle Dress dance. “Dancing is really fun for me,” said Niya. “Although it can be competitive, dancing is also healing as a Native person.”
After high school, Niya hopes to continue building the art business that she began this year, called Niya’s Art. Her name, Niya, translates to “mine” in Ojibwe. “That’s why it’s called Niya’s Art,” she explained, “because it’s my art.”
“If owning my own business doesn’t work out, I might be a lawyer,” said Niya. But at the end of it all, she wants is happiness.
Assistant Principal Carrie Vala describes Niya as a creator. You can view her artwork here.