‘IT’S IN OUR BLOOD’

Native American dancers move to their own drum beat at powwows
By: 

Charles Collier Leader Correspondent


Photo by Charles Collier Spectators filled the seats of the Woodland Bowl to watch the dancers, but each of the 11 drum circles drew fans of their own.

Photo by Charles Collier A dancer moves around the arena in a swirl of color Saturday as a full crowd watches the 52nd annual Menominee Nation Contest Pow Wow. More than 700 participated in this year’s event.

Vibrant regalia highlighted expertly fluid movements made to driving beats and powerful songs inside Keshena’s historic Woodland Bowl at the 52nd annual Menominee Nation Contest Pow Wow on Aug. 3-5.

Among the 11 groups of singers and five age classes between both genders for dancers, more than 700 individuals were in powwow competition, a plurality traveling from outside of Wisconsin.

“I’m dancing pretty much every weekend in the summer,” said J.R. Lonelodge, an Arapahoe and Cheyenne from Oklahoma, before laughing and noting, “I have a day job, so I save up the vacation days.”

Lonelodge and many of the weekend’s competitors make good use of powwow circuits throughout the United States and Canada to keep alive the steps, twirls and reverence for unpredictability of their ancestors some 90 generations back.

For each round of dance competition, a different group of drummers/singers provide the music, themselves competing against the other accompanists. No dancer is certain of the steps or moves they will deploy until the first beat begins pulsing from the drum head.

“It’s like a rodeo,” Lonelodge said of the experience.

Instead of maintaining balance on an angry bull for a handful of seconds, powwow dancers must ride whichever contortions the drum beats out. Some steps and moves are either expected or required given the dance category, such as a yell and skyward look in women’s fancy dance to indicate victory over an enemy, the basics of which become naturally wielded weapons for a seasoned competitor.

“I have no idea who is going to be playing for my rounds, or what the song will even be. You learn how to move with the flow, but figuring out the beat can be tough at first,” Lonelodge said.

Dancers’ regalia — the intricate outfits worn in the powwow round — is at least one avenue where one can exert direct autonomy.

Whether handed down from elder relatives or purchased piecemeal at various powwows, the regalia serve as physical symbols of the dancers’ journeys and their connections to the past. Each includes an array of accessory beads, feather assortments, bells (depending on the category), headwear and other items.

Assembling a competition-worthy wardrobe is no small task, made clear by the description of “regalia” for dance wear as opposed to “costume.”

Regalia, by definition, is a word reserved for attire carrying the emblem or symbolic weight of regal status — respect is shown by the individual to their precedents as is shown in turn to the individual draped in the honorable wear. When donning a costume, one is pretending to be a certain personality, and one does not wear regalia unless their personality has earned the right.

About two hours ahead of competition, dancers begin preparing for the arena, fitting each piece to its respective body part and carefully realigning feather bustles for the day’s demands.

As with any kind of preparation, shortcomings can make themselves known only just before time has run out. This occurred at least once Saturday just minutes before the grand entry was set to begin when a boy, age 12, began affixing his brown-feathered headpiece only to have one of its leather ties snap in half.

In short time, the boy’s mother, with the speed and precision of an Army medic, had additional leather strapping as well as needle and thread ready. Quickly, she took to repairing the headpiece, completing her mission with plenty of time to spare.

Her assortment of extras included multicolored beads, dyed rooster feathers, replacement bells and a host of other emergency supplies.

Many are without regalia coming their way from the preceding generation nor have disposable income for freshly made attire, and that’s the audience Lonelodge seeks to inform with his online video series, “Making Regalia,” which shows step-by-step how to create different aspects of the iconic powwow style.

For his personal men’s fancy regalia, Lonelodge uses golden eagle feathers on his back to contrast the brightness elsewhere on his body as a nod to the classic styles of his youth.

“Specifically, I decided on golden eagle feathers to show respect to the elders that taught me as I was growing up,” Lonelodge said.

For Lonelodge, the story began before his own life.

“What I do — men’s fancy — is a combination of different styles, but a lot of it comes from war dances,” said Lonelodge, who began dancing at the age of 2. “Some years ago, the dancing started getting faster, and that drew a younger crowd. But the elders didn’t like it very much — they called it the ‘crazy dance.’ And even though the dance ultimately changed, I still want to respect the elders.”

Lonelodge, a former U.S. Marine, said the dance is one of the most physically taxing exercises he regularly undertakes. For him, running 5K races and pushing through regular cardiovascular workouts is all part of the “off-season.”

“The biggest thing to learn, and the hardest to teach, is pacing yourself. I work on my cardio more than anything to have enough energy all the way through,” Lonelodge said.

Fancy categories usually feature two songs in competition, one straightforward and another more upbeat allowing singers to showcase their talent. In others, dancers undertake a war of endurance — pushing forward with their performance as long as their lungs and muscles will allow.

“The longest I’ve gone is 17 (songs),” Lonelodge said. “It took a few days to recover from that; I was absolutely drained.”

Powwow dancing styles integrate various natural themes from the plethora of indigenous tribes: Grass dancers use high steps and floating movements as though surrounded by prairie grass; women’s fancy shawl dancers are nicknamed butterfly dancers (their beautiful shawl representing wings breaking a cocoon); men’s fancy dancers tell the story of a hunt through physically demanding movements.

Nowhere could nature’s influence have been better showcased than the beautifully earthen amphitheater in Keshena known as the Woodland Bowl.

Though the venue may not seem like much from the lawn-turned-parking lot, the outdoor arena’s semi-circle of wooden seating surprises the unsuspecting eye upon first glance and continues to impress the longer it is viewed.

Though Saturday night’s festivities were postponed and those of Sunday slightly delayed due to rain showers, this seemed only to make the arena’s grass more vividly green and the forested backdrop a lively part of the performances.

“As a woodland people, we know that the rain is very important at this time of year for the raspberries, blackberries and wild rice. Let us be thankful for the rain and understand what comes with holding an outdoor celebration,” an announcement rang out ahead of Sunday’s grand entry.

Not everyone at the event was Menominee, much less of indigenous blood at all. This aspect may be taken for granted in the contemporary mind. But in the slow-moving timeline of history, it is something which should be given prideful attention.

In 1919, just after World War I, a group of tourists known for their “tin can” trailers began holding their organization’s annual convention in Keshena, which is, as a Post-Crescent piece from 1937 said, “at the center of this red man’s domain.”

By that point, the tribal-run sawmill in Neopit was already constructed, but the people themselves were more or less accessory merchandise that tourists and temporary campers were encouraged to marvel. Only through attracting money and attention did the Menominee people hold value.

This last weekend, however, was a prominent display of Indian Country’s resilient pride. Though many announcements and nearly all signage was in English, there was no hesitation for addresses to be made in the Menominee language without providing a translation. Every competitor at the event traveled by their own accord and were competing on their own convictions. Judges for dancing and singing were of indigenous descent, and the eagle staff — representing every tribe there and every native person who has served in the United States military — was the first to enter and leave during the presentation of colors.

Such a renewed pride in Native culture after centuries of degradation, and a massive shift in self-autonomy for such people, may help explain the near constant toothy grin on Lonelodge’s face as his 1½-year-old daughter, Cedar, begins bouncing in her boots.

“If I put one of the powwow CDs on, she starts dancing immediately. It’s just in her blood,” he said just after pulling Cedar out of the baby carrier before correcting himself.

“It’s in our blood.”