On the Powwow Trail
Colorful summer celebrations bring Native Americans and non-Indians together across Minnesota and the Midwest
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These days he travels the continent, announcing nearly every weekend. Despite the differences in styles and languages—whether Ojibwe, Crow, Dakota, Assiniboine, Cree—powwows are either traditional, like Grand Portage’s, or contest, with dance competitions. In both, the regalia (never “costumes”) and dancing fall into various styles, such as men’s traditional and grass dancing, and women’s jingle dress and fancy shawl— “what we call butterflies,” says Thomas. Likewise, the songs and dances have different styles and meanings—grand-entry, flag, and warrior songs, and sneak-up and crow-hop dances.
During a break in the music, I meet Jaron Smallwood, a stocky 17-year-old with a tuft of chin whiskers. A native of Red Lake, he now lives in Duluth. Despite the warm sun, he wears a flat-topped fur hat. As I introduce myself and begin to ask questions, he cautions me that I should first offer a token, such as tobacco. So I rummage through my pack for a cigar, which seems to amuse him. “I’ve been dancing since I was like knee high,” he says. Though he travels to several powwows in northern Minnesota, “this is my favorite powwow up here.” He likes the small community atmosphere, the location on the big lake, and the relaxed atmosphere that comes from dancing for enjoyment. “Competition is too contemporary. I’m not out there dancing for money or anything. I’m dancing to dance because it is something I like to do.”
I find Jim Chicago, an old but fit Ojibwe from Lac Des Mille Lacs First Nation west of Thunder Bay. He was hard to miss in the circle, with his coyote-skin headdress and bone breastplate—regalia that came to him in a series of dreams. As he danced, he dramatized each movement, reaching to the heavens or crouching low during his sneak-up.
“I love to dance,” he says. “It’s a way of life for me. It rejuvenates me spiritually, physically, mentally, and emotionally, eh? For the next two or three days after this, I’ll have what we call a powwow hangover, because we put so much effort and so much emotion into our dancing.”
Chicago confesses to having spent a dissolute life on the streets of Toronto until he was about 40. “I got back to my culture about 30 years ago,” he says. “It’s a good thing, because I respect and honor everything now rather than just one person. And it’s led me to a good way of life, and I walk a good road now. I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs, I don’t swear, I don’t smoke. I don’t fool around. I’ve been with my wife about 26 years now.”
Back in the bleachers, I meet Esther Diabo, an athletic-looking grandmother in a bright yellow pullover. A “traditional Anishinabe” from Thunder Bay, she keeps six dresses for dancing, but brought only one this trip, because she intends to spend much of the weekend watching friends and relatives dance.
I tell her I noticed a few people dancing who looked no more native than I do. She laughs. “Those are the wannabes. They are a different tribe. There’s no judging. If you wanted to go in there and dance, you can dance. Nobody would stop you and say, ‘What are you doing?’”
She clearly hasn’t seen me dance, I say.
She laughs. “Maybe they would ask you to leave then.”
A big part of the powwows are the food and gift booths. Kids working summer jobs serve up lemonade slurpees, tend fryers, and dole out taco fixings. Vendors peddle earrings, necklaces, and regalia.
Charles Stately sits behind a table selling Native American CDs and DVDs (Little Big Man, Dances with Wolves), as well as jewelry, beaded wallets and brooches, and similar hand-worked crafts. He’s an Ojibwe, born in Red Lake, but raised in the Twin Cities. When he was 21—about 30 years ago now—he took a job at a small store in Minneapolis selling Indian crafts. He proved such an adept salesman he bought Woodland Indian Crafts a year later. Now he travels the powwow trail as a businessman in the spring, summer, and fall. “It suits me,” he says.
As both Indians and non-Indians crowd around the booth to inspect the beadwork, I venture that powwows are a good way for non-Indians to learn something about native communities—not from a book, as though Indian life were a history lesson, but an entry point to contemporary communities.
“A very good entry point,” he says brightly. “It’s really simple. I always tell people, if you’re there, you’re already a part of it. You become part of the powwow, even though you’re not dancing or singing.”
Powwows in the Region
For information about dozens more powwows in Minnesota and elsewhere, go to drumhop.com or powwows.com
- Grand Portage Rendezvous Days Celebration Powwow; Aug. 9–12; Grand Portage National Monument, 170 Mile Creek Rd., Grand Portage; 218-475-0123; nps.gov
- Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Traditional Powwow; Aug. 17–19; Iskigamizigan powwow grounds, Hwy. 169, Onamia; 320-532-5944; millelacsband.com
- Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Wacipi; Aug. 17–19; SMSC powwow grounds, Dakotah Pkwy. and County Rd. 42, Shakopee; 952-445-8900; shakopeedakota.org
- Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota 13th Annual Wacipi; Sept. 7–9; St. Peter’s Church grounds, 1405 Sibley Memorial Hwy., Mendota; 651-452-4141; mendotadakota.com
Mahkato Wacipi Honoring the 38 Dakota; Sept. 21–23; Land of Memories Park, Amos Owen Ln. and Hwy. 169, Mankato; 507-385-6660; mahkatowacipi.org
Greg Breining is a regular contributor to Minnesota Monthly.