Artist Hadassah GreenSky keeps Anishinaabe traditions alive in Detroit

Hadassah GreenSky’s blue dress shimmers like she is wearing the river. Thin pieces of metal rolled into cones swim around the dress making a cling-clang song as she jumps, light on her feet, to a chorus of drums. Her hair is fashioned into two braids with blue extensions and accentuated with red and white feathers.

GreenSky is a Detroit-based queer Anishinaabe artist from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. She’s also a painter, beader, videographer, and multimedia artist.

Today, she’s performing the Jingle Dress Dance, which comes from an Ojibwe story about 100 years ago, as GreenSky explains it. The story goes that a Native leader prayed to the spirits for guidance on how to heal his daughter, who was very sick. He had a vision in a dream of a dress with 365 cones on it made from curled up tobacco snuff can lids. So he recreated the dress for his daughter to wear.

“He rolled a prayer into each cone,” GreenSky says. “When that dress was complete, he put it on his daughter and she started dancing, and she was completely well by the time the song was over. So anybody in the community who’s sick, we now offer those jingle dress dances, some tobacco, an offering, and ask them to pray for those that are sick… When I put that dress on, I’m really channeling the healing energy that’s been with us for a century because we live in a broken society and we need that healing.”

GreenSky is dancing at Vibes With the Tribes, an event billed as Michigan’s first Native American music and cultural festival that she created with her partner, an Anishinaabe rapper named Soufy. The festival serves as a mini inter-tribal powwow with dancers, drummers, artists, and musicians from across the country. This year marked the third installment of the festival, which was held on June 1 at the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation in Southwest Detroit.

The Jingle Dress Dance is a form of medicine — not just because of its storied history, but also as an act of reclamation. Native Americans were legally barred from practicing their traditional culture, spirituality, or even speaking their native language until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

“A lot of our grandparents are survivors of residential schools and it was literally beat out of them that they couldn’t be native,” GreenSky says. “They couldn’t speak their language. They couldn’t go to ceremony. They had to look a certain way. They had to wear assimilated clothes. They had to cut their hair. They even had their skin bleached. And to go from that juxtaposition to today. It is a miracle.”

She adds, thinking about how some of her relatives couldn’t have powwows freely before 1978, “I got all my aunties and uncles, they talk about powwow back in the day and in the ’60s, they used to be way back on some shoddy road where the Feds couldn’t find them because it was illegal. And now we get to dance and be open. Now we get to create art and be open and we don’t have to hide who we are…. I exist in this world, simply because my ancestors couldn’t. And that’s why I live so boldly.”

The art of powwow dancing is not just limited to the dancing itself. GreenSky makes all of her own regalia, including decked-out moccasins with hundreds of tiny beads all sewn by hand. The dress she’s wearing at the Vibes With the Tribes is particularly special because she made it during the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd.

“I was organizing with different natives in the city around the George Floyd protests, basically [showing] Indigenous solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and we held a 40-day sacred fire in the city,” she remembers. “During that time, I brought my table out and I brought my sewing machine and set it right next to the fire. And I made that whole dress in about two, three weeks in front of that fire every day… It has symbology of both the fire and the water, which a lot of the fire duties go to the men, and a lot of the duties around the water go to the women. And I’m a Two Spirit person, so I have both of those roles.”

click to enlarge Hadassah GreenSky dancing at Vibes With the Tribes. - SevenFifteen


Hadassah GreenSky dancing at Vibes With the Tribes.

Two Spirit is a Native way of referring to people who possess both a feminine and masculine spirit within their physical body, or those whose spirit is opposite than the gender they were assigned at birth. It can also refer to people who perform mixed gender roles within their tribe.

These days, we would call these people queer. GreenSky uses she/they pronouns of account of being Two Spirit.

“In our language [Anishinaabemowin], we call it ‘niizh manidoowag,’ but it translates to ‘Two Spirit,’” they explain. “We have a vessel, and you might have a male spirit that embodies that vessel even though you’re presenting feminine… It’s just a recognition of your spirit compared to the vessel that you’re in, and when you are a person that lives in both of those worlds, you can take both of those roles. So it’s less about your sexual preference, your ‘queerness,’ and it’s more about how you can help your community and what special roles that you can take on.”

They and their partner are also working on a documentary and accompanying album about the “Red Ghetto,” which is what Native Americans often called Detroit’s Cass Corridor from the 1950s to 1980s. During that time, the neighborhood was heavily populated by Natives who were forced to move there. The Indian Relocation Act of 1956 uprooted Natives from their homeland and shipped them off to big cities like Detroit, where they often had no relatives, in an attempt to assimilate them into “American” culture.

“If you look up the Red Ghetto and ‘Detroit Cass Corridor native neighborhood,’ you’re not really going to find anything,” they say. “But if you talk to any Native person in Michigan, somebody’s going to remember a time when their relatives lived in Detroit in the Red Ghetto.”

click to enlarge “Waawiyaatanong: From The Ashes, She Rises” by Hadassah GreenSky. - Courtesy of Hadassah GreenSky

Courtesy of Hadassah GreenSky

“Waawiyaatanong: From The Ashes, She Rises” by Hadassah GreenSky.

Back in her Eastside apartment with a view of the Detroit River, she sits in front of several digital and acrylic paintings including one piece, titled “Waawiyaatanong: From The Ashes, She Rises.” The brightly-colored piece features the Detroit skyline and the Detroit River along with sturgeon, a thundering crane, and a woman with the Aurora Borealis in her hair. It was featured in the Metro Times 2024 Fiction Issue.

GreenSky’s paintings are inspired by Canadian Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, who created the “woodland painting” style featuring vibrant colors and Native symbols.

“This one was really birthed out of the idea that the land is living, and the land is still living, even though all this concrete is here,” she says about the Waawiyaatanong piece. “This summer that I drew this was the summer that Detroit flooded like three times [in 2021]. And it was one of those humbling moments of like, we as humans can build all we want, but it [is] no match for Mother Earth, Mother Nature… I have old maps of all the rivers that used to be here [and] all of them have been redirected and built into our sewage system… We believe that the waters are really like the blood of Mother Earth.”

Waawiyaatanong is the Anishinaabe word for Detroit and means “where the curved shores meet.” GreenSky included the crane as a symbol of Detroit artists rising up as the city’s unexpected leaders.

“I see a lot of artists in Detroit just rising up and taking back those ways from before colonization,” they say.

A mural of this piece is also featured as part of Detroit’s City Walls program at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Dearborn Street. The mural is painted on the side of an abandoned building across from Zug Island.

“I chose this spot because it needed the most medicine,” GreenSky says.

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