‘A celebration of life’: Hundreds attend 21st annual Traditional Powwow at NMU

MARQUETTE – The powwow is a gathering to celebrate life, but it’s also much more than that.

For the several hundred people who gathered at Northern Michigan University’s Vandament Arena Saturday for the 21st annual “Learning to Walk Together” Traditional Powwow, it was also a time to impart upon the younger generations the values of Native American culture – as well as an opportunity to reunite with friends and family from all over the country to dance and sing and feast together.

Vendors were set up at tables around the edges of the gymnasium, selling jewelry, artwork, chocolates and other foods. A faint smell of ceremonial tobacco hung in the air.

At the center of the gym small cedar boughs marked the boundaries of an enormous circle, at the center of which people clustered around several drums.

The blending of dozens of voices faded as everyone was asked to stand for the grand entry. The Bahweting Singers began to play the host drum, and as the song began a procession led by an honor guard of military veterans from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community began to make its way around the circle to the rhythm of the drum and a medley of voices in song. After the honor guard came the head dancers – those men and women respected for their great knowledge and skill as dancers – then visiting royalty from neighboring tribes, then men dancing in various styles, then women, then children. Most were dressed in splendid, colorful regalia.

“It’s a celebration of life,” said Alicia Paquin, president of NMU’s Native American Student Association and organizer of the gathering. “The most important (aspect of) the powwow would be the drum … that’s why the people, our dancers, dance. The drum is the heartbeat, so when people dance … it’s just like we all move together like a beating heart.”

Paquin, 25, said she has been going to powwows since she was a year and a half old, and to the junior in criminal justice with a minor in Native American studies the gatherings represent the balance she seeks to keep between her studies and her culture.

They are also a way to keep in touch with others around the country.

“Powwows are nationwide, so if we don’t get to see each other for awhile, it’s a good weekend to be come eat, sing, dance and just catch up on things,” Paquin said. “People may have gotten married, somebody may have passed on, it’s just kind of a way to keep in touch, and we’re living in our culture by dancing and singing and keeping our Anishinaabe ways strong.”

Rodney Loonsfoot, a Keweenaw Bay Tribal member and U.S. Marine Corps veteran who has been attending powwows for nearly 40 years, agreed that the celebrations are crucial to preserving the Native American way of life.

“This powwow, this gathering … it’s a social time where all of our friends, we do the best that we can to come together to try to continue to promote our cultural identity,” he said. “We’re Anishinaabe, we’re Ojibwe people from Baraga. We need to carry on what we were taught to the best of our abilities.”

For Paquin, her favorite part of the powwow is seeing all six of the different styles of dance.

“I just like seeing how there’s elders … down from adolescents to the younger ones,” she said. “My kids are actually dancing today. So I just like seeing how, from young to older to young, it’s just a circle that everybody just comes together to dance.”

Loonsfoot said one of the biggest changes to powwows, as they’ve grown and increased in popularity over the years, has been the ability to hold gatherings inside during the winter.

“In the winter, there just wasn’t no gathering like this,” he said.

Loonsfoot said powwows like Saturday’s offer a wonderful opportunity to pass on cultural knowledge and values to the kids, and by doing so keeping the culture alive.

“That’s really what it is, it’s kind of like a reawakening – trying to instill, trying to grow that culture back into the kids,” he said. “We have that responsibility to teach them, and if we don’t there might not be a powwow here in the next five or 10 years.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net.