For all who attend, the annual gatherings have many layers of meaning.
© Beth Gauper
Girls dance in the circle at the Upper Sioux Wacipi near Granite Falls, Minn.
As the afternoon sun beat down on Mankato's Land of Memories Park, the drumming began.
Into a circle ringed by bleachers came dancers carrying sacred eagle staffs, honoring the memory of 38 Dakota warriors hanged nearby in 1862. Other dancers carried flags, one honoring the military veterans who are venerated in Indian culture.
After them came the men's traditional dancers, wearing turkey-feather bustles and perhaps a bone breastplate, using a controlled, heel-to-toe step.
Then came the fancy dancers, in a whirl of color and spinning leaps; grass dancers, with streamers swaying; and young women in jingle dresses.
It was the second year I'd come to the Mdewakanton Mah-kato Wacipi in Mankato.
Even so, as I watched the proceedings and listened hard to the voices crackling over the PA, I could hear Sherlock Holmes' admonishment to the dim-witted Watson echoing in my ears: "You see, but you do not observe.''
A powwow can be a little like a Magic Eye puzzle: There's a swirl of colors and a lot to look at, but the eye may not be able to grasp the whole picture. That is, if the eye belongs to a person whose knowledge of Indians comes from history books.
"It's such a different culture,'' says public-television producer Barbara Wiener, who spent a year researching her documentary "Wacipi-PowWow.'' "It's so shocking — you feel like you've stepped into a different country.''
Each summer, powwows are held around the United States. For local bands, they are a social gathering, a time to greet old friends, replenish a sense of cultural identity and show off achievements.
For the public — and the powwow's tradition of welcoming outsiders is an old one — it's a window into a culture rich with nature-based spirituality and symbolic meaning.
The Mankato wacipi is a traditional powwow, more like a family reunion; at competition powwows, dancers and sometimes drummers vie for cash prizes.
At all powwows, the dancing celebrates each man and woman's artistry, spirituality and connection to ancestors and community.
© Beth Gauper
The drum circle provides the heartbeat for every powwow.
As we watched the dancers, we developed favorites, some for their intensity, some for their elaborate regalia, some for their movements.
One dancer moved his head sharply from side to side, like a bird, and wore red paint on his forehead and blue and black paint on his cheeks.
Afterward, we complimented him on his dancing. His name was Gregory LaPointe, he had traveled from Rosebud, S.D., and he told us how, three years before, after many years of aimlessness, he finally had asked the elders for instruction and had begun to dance.
"Then everything just fell together,'' he said, and pointed to some young boys passing by. "I am like one of the children; I'm just now growing back into my culture. I'm learning to walk the road.''
While the Grand Entry is the centerpiece of a powwow, there also are craft tents and food booths. At the Mah-kato wacipi, there was a Learning Tent where elder Solomon Hall of Brandon, Manitoba, told me about his work as a therapist and medicine man. Another elder showed us how to make small canvas tepees for children.
In another tent, some older men were hunched over a game of moccasin, a kind of shell game played with mats and poles; according to legend, it was created by a Dakota hunter who, having beaten an enemy at the game, refused to cut his neck and instead took him home as a brother.
In time, says Barbara Wiener, the many facets of Indian culture reveal themselves to those who relax their reliance on Western thinking.
"The more powwows you go to, the more you know and the more respectful you are in terms of listening, and if you listen you will get it,'' she says. "Now, I can't imagine a summer without going to several.''
© Beth Gauper
At the weekly powwow in Lac du Flambeau, Wis., visitors join the dancers.
Trip Tips: Powwows
The centerpiece is the Grand Entry; most are 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays and 7 p.m. Saturdays, but call in advance to find out for sure. Guests may want to bring tobacco to honor favorite dancers, drummers, or elders with whom they wish to talk.
Never enter the circle unless invited, and don’t take photos when the announcer forbids them. Refer to outfits or regalia, not “costumes.” Guests should stand during the Grand Entry and honor songs.
One of the first things visitors will notice is the many ways in which veterans are honored. Despite their history with the U.S. government, Indians take great pride in serving their country, and their young people have a long record of valiant service.
Check with each nation to find out when powwows are held; near the event date, call for grand-entry times. Below is a guide to some powwows.
For other Canadian and Upper Midwest powwows, check Drumhop.
For more about the Upper Sioux Community wacipi in Minnesota, see Dancing on the Yellow Medicine.
For more about Ojibwe and Dakota heritage, see our American Indians section.
In Starved Rock State Park along the Illinois River, the Midwest SOARRING Foundation holds the Honor the Earth Pow Wow.
Memorial Day weekend
Memorial Day Powwow at Mille Lacs Indian Museum near Onamia, Minn., 320-532-3632.
Red Lake Band of Chippewa powwow at Seven Clans Casino in Thief River Falls, Minn.
© Beth Gauper
Grass dancers perform at the September powwow in Mankato.
Red Lake Band of Chippewa powwow at Seven Clans Casino in Warroad, Minn.
Great Dakota Gathering & Homecoming traditional powwow in Winona, Minn.
White Earth Reservation traditional powwow in White Earth, Minn.
Lower Sioux Community Wacipi in Morton, Minn., near Redwood Falls, traditional, 507-697-6185.
Bois Forte Band of Chippewa Lake Vermillion traditional powwow on Lake Vermillion near Ely, Minn.
St. Croix Chippewa competition powwow in Turtle Lake, Wis.
Oneida Nation Powwow in Oneida, Wis., near Green Bay, competition. 800-236-2214.
Fourth of July weekend
Sault Tribe of Chippewa Powwow in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.,906-635-6050.
Red Lake Band of Chippwa Indians Independence Day Contest Powwow in northwest Minnesota, 218-679-3341.
Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa traditional powwow near Bayfield, Wis. 715-779-3700.
Leech Lake Band of Chippewa traditional powwow in Cass Lake, Minn.
Oneida Nation competition powwow in Oneida, Wis., just west of Green Bay.
Prairie Island Community of Mdewakanton Sioux Wacipi Celebration near Red Wing, Minn., 800-554-5473.
Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Veterans Powwow, Cloquet, Minn., 218-879-4593.
Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe Honor the Earth Powwow near Hayward, Wis., 715-634-8934.
Pipestone Dakota Traditional Wacipi in Pipestone, Minn.
© Beth Gauper
At many powwows, especially smaller and traditional ones, tourists are invited into the circle.
Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin contest powwow in Keshena, Wis., northwest of Green Bay.
Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa traditional powwow in Grand Portage, Minn., 800-543-1384. With the rendezvous at adjoining Grand Portage National Monument, this is a large event; plan a year in advance.
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Traditional Powwow at the powwow grounds, near Onamia, Minn., 320-532-7496.
Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Homecoming Powwow in Harbor Springs, Mich.
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Wacipi in Prior Lake, Minn., 952-445-8900.
Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians Peshawbestown Traditional Pow Wow between Northport and Suttons Bay on
Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. 231-534-7750.
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians traditional powwow in Odanah near Ashland, Wis. 715-682-7111.
St. Croix Chippewa Wild Rice Fest traditional powwow in Danbury, Wis., 800-236-2195.
Labor Day weekend
Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee at Maier Festival Park.
Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Welcome Home traditional powwow in Mendota, Minn., on the Minnesota River between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Mahkato traditional wacipi, Mankato, Minn., in Land of Memories Park.
Harvest Pow Wow in Naperville, Ill., sponsored by the Midwest SOARRING Foundation.
Last updated on May 22, 2014
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