On the Powwow Trail
Colorful summer celebrations bring Native Americans and non-Indians together across Minnesota and the Midwest
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Dennis Mosher hangs out in the shade of the bleachers. A beaded medallion rests on his forehead above his steel-rimmed glasses. He’s a grass dancer, with bright yarn trimming his buckskins. “The fringes represent the grass on the prairie,” he says.
Mosher, a member of the Manitou Rapids First Nation in Ontario, has come to Grand Portage for the annual powwow, one of several Ojibwe festivals he visits each year. “It’s just like a social event,” he says. “You meet people. You dance with other dancers.”
Lots of non-Indians in the crowd, I say. “White people—they like the way our regalia is,” Mosher says. “See, it’s colorful. And to them it’s really something to see. That’s okay! We invite people to see our traditional powwows. White people, they’re curious. They have a lot of curiosity about our way of life.”
This summer folks will be heading to Indian casinos and reservations around the country. They’ll be out on the powwow trail. A lot of them will be Native Americans, but a lot won’t. They’ll go for the festive atmosphere and the big crowds that gather for weekend displays of dancing and drumming, with plenty to eat—a combination county fair, ethnic festival, and street dance, with a smidgen of religious sensibility.
Of the dozens of powwows in Minnesota, one of the best is the Grand Portage powwow, held the second full weekend in August. It’s not the biggest, but it’s appealing for other reasons. Grand Portage, on Lake Superior at the northeastern tip of Minnesota, is surely one of the prettiest settings in Minnesota. It is also one of the most historically significant. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, Grand Portage was the lively crossroads of a fur trade that stretched from Europe to the farthest reaches of the Canadian frontier; a place where French Canadian voyageurs, Scottish agents of the North West Company, independent traders, and Ojibwe Indians all rubbed shoulders.
They’re still here, the fur traders and Indians. For decades, the Grand Portage community has held its powwow in conjunction with Rendezvous Days at nearby Grand Portage National Monument. If you have been under the delusion that powwows are reenactments of years gone by, the pairing of Rendezvous Days and the powwow will quickly disabuse you. The voyageurs are fake; the Indians are not.
Down the hill at the reconstructed fort, more than 300 re-enactors in period linen, cotton, and wool set white-canvas tents, tend cooking fires, and lug water in pails or wooden buckets. There’s a preternatural hush over the grounds, as though a loud noise might break the illusion that the year is 1797.
Up the hill at the powwow grounds the mood is festive. Cars jam the parking lots and line the road. Tents and teepees of every color fill the camping area. At several booths, short-order cooks serve up Indian tacos on spongy saucers of fry bread. Cradling plates from World’s Greatest Frybread, my wife, Susan, and I share a picnic table with a couple from Des Moines who are vacationing in Grand Marais. They had heard about the event and decided to stop by.
In anticipation of the 1 p.m. grand entry, dancers mill about in traditional regalia: feathered headdresses, bone breastplates, hair roaches. But others hang out in jeans, shorts, athletic shoes, Twins caps, and sunglasses. In other words, despite the touchstones to the past—the regalia, dancing, singing, and drumming—the powwow is not a re-enactment or indigenous Renaissance festival, but a contemporary community get-together.
Spectators straggle into the bleachers. The emcee, Murphy Thomas, maintains an easy-going patter of corny jokes and politically incorrect jabs at Seminoles, Navajos, and Hopis, as well as occasional remarks in his native Ojibwe. Thomas takes note of the nonnatives in the crowd—“the white salt on the burned mooseburger,” he jokes.
As the time for the grand entry draws closer, Thomas turns more serious. The powwow grounds are the “sacred circle where we all become one family,” he declares. By now the crowd has grown to more than 1,500, and people continue to stream in. Thomas calls out the names of the drums—more than 30 groups of drummers and singers in the center of the grounds: Leech Lake. Chicago Bay. Eagle Boys. Black Water. Thunder Cats. Each group answers with a thump on a drum. The organizers still need a veteran to carry the MIA-POW flag during the grand entry, so Thomas asks for a volunteer—Indian or non-Indian. In minutes, a bearded man who looks old enough to have served in Vietnam has the flag pole in hand.
Thomas provides commentary for newcomers. “There is a story, there is a legend behind everything you see here,” he says over the loudspeaker. “Our staff carriers, our drums, our songs—they are very sacred to us, very powerful to us. We use them for healing and ceremonies. Those eagle staffs, we highly regard those feathers. When we say our prayers and use our tobacco and pipes, that is the winged one that takes our prayers to our creator, God, whatever you want to call him.”
With that, Thomas exhorts us to stand for the grand entry. Drums pound. The edgy voices of the singers rise. Dancers, led by the eagle-staff carriers, pour into the stadium, followed by flag carriers with colors for the United States, Grand Portage band, and POWs. And then come ranks and ranks of several hundred dancers, filling the circle in a swirling, foot-stomping storm of noise and color.
After a flag-raising ceremony honoring military veterans, the drums, singing, and dancing begin again. “Don’t be afraid, ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas shouts out. “Come in and dance, come in and dance!”
Hundreds of native communities in the United States and Canada sponsor powwows. Over time, the styles of dancing and singing have blended so that the festivals share many characteristics. But not all. “You gotta know a lot,” Thomas tells me later. “People think we’re just up there talking, but you have to know their ceremonies. If I go to Canada, I find out what their way is there. I talk to the elders about it so I don’t overstep anything.”
Thomas, a retired high-school teacher and mental-health counselor from the Red Lake Ojibwe reservation in northern Minnesota, first filled in as a powwow emcee about 20 years ago. He realized his talent a few days later when powwow organizers began calling from all over the region. “I was kind of afraid and nervous. This is a gift from the creator that was given to me. And I didn’t know anything about it, you know?”