At the midway point of the 33rd annual Saginaw Chippewa Powwow, a three-day event held in late July on the Isabella Indian Reservation in central Michigan, the sun is beating down and the emcee wants to know, “Who turned down the air conditioners?” Participants and spectators are ready to embrace the late afternoon torpor, and let the Indian tacos and fry bread settle, let the fancy shawl dancers float by on the breeze, let the emcee’s patter bring up a chuckle.
But the drums won’t allow it. Those drums, made in the millennia-old fashion (an animal hide, a circular wooden frame), are rarely silent for long. They are the pulse of the powwow; the songs sung over them the lifeblood. Thirteen drum groups, including The Boys, Wigwam Nation, and Smokey Town, perform songs that feature high-pitched cries and rousing choruses, each one tailored to the event at hand. Some songs forgo words and ride the melody, employing vocables—sounds without translatable meaning, like hey, ya, and ho—to create hauntingly beautiful songs that stay with you long after the last day of the powwow has ended.
Derived from the old Algonquin term pauau, for a gathering of medicine men and spiritual leaders, the contemporary powwow is a celebration, a time for family and friends and members of different tribal nations to come together and honor Native American culture and traditions. “We honor each other and our environment through song and dance,” Elizabeth Pigeon, vice chairperson of the powwow committee and an Eagle Clan Ojibwe and a Potawatomi citizen of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe (Chippewa is an anglicization of Ojibwe), writes in an email after the powwow ended. Men, women, and children participate, and the dancers wear regalia that connect them to their ancestors, family, clan, and nations. This is a competition powwow, which means singers and dancers travel great distances to compete for cash prizes, and members from a wide range of tribal nations are present, including Odawa, Potawatomi, Crow, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Cree, Seminole, and Winnebago. “Dominant society tends to misuse our identity for profit and desensitize dominant society to historical facts of genocide our nations have experienced since 1492,” Pigeon notes. These powwows are part of an attempt to celebrate and reclaim that identity.
That identity, in some of its many manifestations, is on full display during the Grand Entry, which occurs four times over the three-day powwow: once on Friday, twice on Saturday, and once on Sunday. With its jingling bells, bursts of colors, twitching feathers, and thumping beats, the Grand Entry provides a high point insofar as spectacle. The emcee asks everyone to rise to their feet, and the host drum, Smokey Town, plays the opening song. The eagle staffs and flags lead the procession into the dance arena. The eagle staffs, which represent the native nations present, and the flags (tribal, U.S., Canadian) are normally carried by veterans of the armed services. Honored guests are next, and then the dancers follow, divided by group: traditional, grass, and fancy for men; traditional, fancy shawl, and jingle dress for women. They descend in age until the littlest ones trot in, sometimes hand-in-hand with their parents. The procession coils around the 20-yard-wide belt of grass, regalia vibrating to the beat.
In one of the covered seating areas that surround the dance arena, there’s a special section for elders, whom dancers are expected to honor; “To dance for those who can’t dance anymore,” says one flag-bearer, Anthony Foerster, a member of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi and an Army and Marine Corps veteran. Respected as warriors and as protectors of the land, veterans are similarly lauded: At one point during the activities, the emcee requests that all the veterans in attendance enter the dance arena. After they have marched/danced around the circle, some more nimbly than others, everyone is encouraged to enter the arena, shake some hands, and show their thanks for the years of service. The warmth is genuine, the gratitude real.
One of the most important aspects of a powwow, Pigeon notes, is the “unity of all nations.” Her words bring back memories of the jingle dress dancers, whose harmony and grace is perhaps best exemplified by their attire—those hundreds of dangling cones (usually 365, a prayer for each day of the year) that erupt in a pleasant din whenever they move. Then they fall silent, as the competitors are in place.? A drum is struck in the center of the circle, more sticks find the hide, the singing begins, and the cones move as one.