Most family reunions and social gatherings consist of food, music and extensive mingling among distant and close relatives. Surprisingly this is not at all different from a Native American powwow. Tribal members gather to reunite with relatives and old friends, but most importantly, they gather in celebration of tradition and heritage. Since the days of assimilation and the ultimate extermination of indigenous culture, powwows are more than just a family reunion; they are a symbol of cultural reclamation.
A powwow features traditional Native American singing and dancing as well as food and artwork displays. It holds a historical and cultural significance for Indigenous people, but the meaning of a powwow has transformed throughout the years. During the period of assimilation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. government restricted Native Americans from engaging in any traditional forms of their former lifestyle. Native children were taken from their homes and forced to adopt Euro-American language and religion, while mass amounts of Native people were forced to live on reservations in poor conditions. As every aspect of their cultural identity was successfully suppressed by the government, dancing and singing became the only way for Native Americans to hold on to a portion of their traditional customs. [pic1]
As a little girl I was often terrified by the sight of the large men dressed in traditional fancy dance regalia as they furiously moved in a circle to the loud beat of the drum. The beautiful movement of the female jingle dress dancers always left me in awe and I aspired to be just like them. At this age I wasn’t completely aware of the cultural significance that powwows held in relation to my ethnicity. I always knew that my family had customs that were different in comparison to my friends’, but I didn’t acknowledge and embrace these differences until I graduated high school. Traveling across the Mackinac Bridge to attend a powwow every year in the Upper Peninsula was second nature to me and I never realized how precious these cultural experiences were until after my grandmother passed away.[beard3]
My late grandmother, Phyllis Schmidt, was an elder from the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and she taught me everything I know about my Ojibwe heritage. She grew up on Mackinac Island in a predominately Native community, but my grandmother was often ashamed of what she was the majority of her young adult life. Tourists would cross the street to avoid walking on the same sidewalk as her and she would rarely claim to be of Native American descent to anyone outside of her immediate family. After my grandmother met and married my German grandfather Philip, she left the island, her Native customs and relatives behind.
Not only were powwows a way to teach her children and grandchildren about their culture, they were return to home for my grandmother. It gave her the ability to reclaim the customs she once knew and it was a place where she could once again feel comfortable. Although my grandmother remained close to our family that resided on our tribe’s reservation, the people in the small town she lived in were completely closed-minded and prejudiced. My grandfather often heard the men he worked with criticize Native people and he was always quick to remind them that he was married to a full-blooded Ojibwe woman. As a young child I was oblivious to such racial discrimination and I didn’t understand the scrutiny associated with my heritage. [Beard2]
The year that my grandmother developed lung cancer, my family stopped attending powwows since she was unable to travel without her oxygen tank. Despite her absence from the powwow circuit, my grandmother consistently kept her traditional medicine bag nearby and it provided her comfort while she was sick. My grandmother eventually beat lung cancer, but later developed brain cancer in the summer of 2006. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and I was excited to spend the next four months interning at the local newspaper in my grandmother’s hometown. The internship was a great learning experience, but it also provided me with extra time to spend near my grandmother before her death.
I miss my grandmother more than I could ever describe, but it is truly amazing what her death has produced. Although our Native heritage has always been a large part of my family, it now holds a whole other meaning. It has brought my family closer and we have never been more proud of our Native American heritage. Learning about my culture not only teaches me more about where I come from, it also teaches me more about my grandmother and in her absence it brings me closer to her once again. When I began classes again in the fall after her death, I became a member and the public relations representative of the North American Indigenous Student Organization (NAISO) at MSU. Not only have a made some great new friends and expanded my knowledge and involvement in the Native community, my grandmother has continued to remain a close memory. I know she would be proud of my active interest in Native culture and my eagerness to teach others about indigenous people.[pic2]
This month NAISO will be holding the 26th annual Powwow of Love. As the largest student organized event held on campus, The Powwow of Love can be an incredible learning and cultural experience for anyone, regardless of the ethnic background. Not only is it important for Native Americans to attend, but also for non-Native people. The only way to dispose of stereotypes and ignorance is to interact within a culture and receive a hands-on experience.
I am looking forward to attending the powwow not only to celebrate the end of the strenuous year-long planning, but to once again connect with my late grandmother. My family members and I have experienced the most intense spiritual connection with my grandmother while interacting at a powwow. My mother once felt such an overwhelming presence of my grandmother after entering the dance circle at a powwow that it nearly brought her to tears.
She described her experience to a tribal elder and the woman simply said “I am not surprised as the drum is the heartbeat of our people.”
In the next few weeks I will look forward once again to my annual family reunion at the MSU Powwow of Love. Not only will this year’s powwow reunite individuals with relatives and old friends, it will also be a reunion with those who dwell within the spiritual world. Gi zah gin (Ojibwe for “I love you”) Gramma. I shall reunite with you soon.
The 26 Annual Powwow of Love will be held on Saturday, February 21 and Sunday February 22 at the MSU Jenison Field House. For more information, visit http://www.msu.edu/~naiso/powwow.