Mille Lacs Band’s annual powwow brings families, community together
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY JAN KURTZ
ARLYN SAM WAS FIVE WHEN HIS FATHER TOOK HIM TO THE PLACES WHERE MEN SAT AND SANG AROUND THE BIG DRUM. While they sang, he ran and played with his friends. When tired, he’d go to his father’s side, lean in and fall asleep. One evening when he sat by his father, his we’eh, godfather, put a stick in his hand.
“I began to tap on the side of the drum,” he recalls. “I loved the beat, the rhythms, the vibration and energy given off by the big grandfather drum.”
That same year, he received a vest, breech cloth, and moccasins for the powwow’s traditional dance. Today, he guides visitors through his culture at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and Trading Post in Onamia.
The Algonquin word “pauwau” might be the ancestor of today’s term referring to a gathering of people for celebration. Today’s powwows revolve around the drum.
“Oral tradition tells us that the drum was a gift given for dancing, singing, expression of prayer, joy, and to honor the Great Spirit,” Arlyn says. “Songs often come from dreams or visions where melodies start in your head and you hum them until they are memorized.”
Originally, ceremonies came together around songs of prayer, hunting or celebrations. “This changed locally about sixty years ago,” Arlyn explains, “when the Trading Post began hiring dancers for tourist demonstrations. Now, we serve traditional foods, sell crafts, and have singing and dance competitions.”
The drum is the heartbeat of the powwow. In the Ojibwe tradition, the act of drumming is called The Sing, and it is performed by men. Women might be seen as back-up singers literally behind the drummers. Drummers offer tobacco or sage smoke smudging as a gift to the drum and Great Spirit before the singing in their native tongue rises, infusing culture into the community.
“That is why the powwow emcee is so important,” Arlyn continues. “Emcees are community elders with personality. They are entertainers, good joke tellers, and keep things moving. They are chosen for their experiences, not their economic status. Younger men may practice, but mostly well-respected elders with strong voices are chosen.”
Before the emcee begins, powwow attendees meander through the stalls sampling fry breads, Indian tacos, walleye strips or nachos, pizza and cotton candy. Others peruse booths selling dazzling beadwork, sweet-smelling soft leather goods, birch bark baskets, wooden flutes, and kid’s trinkets. Bring cash, if the vendor isn’t set up for credit, and a lawn chair, if the bleachers are full.
Powwows might not start right on time. Take this opportunity to listen to the emcee banter with the crowd, to watch dancers taking their places and feel the drum. All will begin when the emcee instructs everyone to stand for the Grand Entry.
The eagle staff of the First Nations is carried out in front of the United States, P.O.W., Minnesota, and tribal flags during the Flag Song. Dignitaries come next, followed by brilliantly dressed dancers wearing combinations of eagle feather headdresses, bustles, sparkling rhinestones, dyed porcupine quills and thousands of tiny beads sewn into their regalia. Hawks’ bells and animal claws jangle from ankle bracelets. Jingle dresses shimmer with rows of tobacco can lids curled into cones swaying and tinkling with each dancer’s move. The men, women, and finally children joyfully circle the grounds displaying their regalia and dance steps. The emcee calls for the invocation, a blessing for the gathered and a request for good weather.
Next, the veterans are called forth to be honored.
“Any veteran, family member, friend of a vet or even someone who wants to honor a veteran can get up and dance during that song,” Arlyn said. “Then, we need a little fun and do the ‘Chicken Dance’ where people strut around mimicking a chicken.”