The great native gathering
It was a warm, breezy June day.
The streets of White Earth village were buzzing with excitement and activity, while energetic kids played baseball, whooping and hollering.
The annual powwow always had people piling into the city, and this year was no different.
It was 1947, and little Lenny Potter was soaking it all up.
He loved the baseball, the carnival, and the dancing.
“I was so excited,” Potter said, looking out onto the now weedy lot where powwows used to be held when he was a kid.
The 69-year-old Potter is now an Ojibwe elder and only one of an entire community, which has, at least in some small way, been shaped by the White Earth powwows and everything they represent.
Potter is a White Earth powwow committee members, which is now gearing up for the event again, which is being held June 10 at the new White Earth powwow grounds behind the new community center.
The event is always in June, a tradition that began back in 1868.
“It started with the treaty of 1867, the establishment of the White Earth Reservation,” said Mike Swan, White Earth’s Natural Resources director and the reservation’s spiritual leader.
Swan says this event has never been ceremonial, but purely celebratory.
“It’s a social event for everybody; there is dancing and singing … a chance for Native Americans who don’t live on the reservation to come back home and for non-natives to come and get exposure to our culture.”
Even in the earlier years, natives and non-natives alike would come from all over Minnesota and surrounding states to celebrate native culture.
“They’d come by horse and buggy; sometimes it’d take them several days to get here,” said Swan.
Bemidji State University Ojibwe Professor Anton Treuer says while White Earth is celebrating its 143rd annual powwow, they only technically began around 70 years ago.
“A List of Indian Offenses was generated in 1891 to suppress tribal dance and ceremony,” said Treuer.
That meant until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the government banned social gatherings like powwows because they were viewed as pagan worshiping.
“They still had them anyway,” said Swan, “They just couldn’t do it in the open, otherwise they’d get thrown in jail.”
Treuer says inspiration for the powwows was drawn from ancient traditions.
“Powwow combines elements of Omaha grass dance, Dakota war dance, an Ojibwe dream about the jingle dress, and modern customs where warriors who used to parade into the soldier fort displaying feathers earned in battle, now parade into the dance arbor for grand entry (to mark the start of the powwow),” said Treuer, “So it is both ancient and modern.”
Throughout the years, the White Earth Ojibwe have held on tightly to some of those old traditions, while letting the powwows evolve as they do.
The Grand Dog Feast, practiced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, once had many natives devouring dogs — a practice obviously not seen on the reservation in many decades.
Some White Earth elders remember stories from their parents about covered wagons, and eventually Model T’s rolling into the event.
Lenny Potter says one of his first powwow memories was of eating wild rice and attending a circus they had in the event.
“They’d ask for volunteers, so me and my little friends would get down on all fours and they’d have lions or tigers come and jump right over us — boy, was I scared they’d not feel like jumping but more like eating,” said Potter.
Jennie Mae Bosweil, 75, says she remembers going to the powwow when she was little, and accommodations weren’t as plush as they are today.
“I don’t think we had real tents” she said, “I remember everybody making little huts out of tar paper — we didn’t have any of this fancy stuff,” she said as she reminisced about how things used to be.
It’s tough to find a White Earth elder who completely approves of the direction of today’s powwows, with many of them criticizing the “commercialization” of the event.
“Now with all the fancy dances and everything, a lot of people just dance for the money,” said elder Geraldine Bugg, “But back then everybody would get out and dance the more traditional dances just for fun.”
Whoever dresses up and dances now does, indeed, get paid for dancing at the powwow, but Swan says it’s simply a substitute for an old tradition of providing food to those who’d travel in and hay for their horses.
“Except now instead of giving them hay for their horses, we give them gas money,” said Swan, “It’s all part of taking care of our guests.”
That hospitality includes a large feast provided free of charge, “no dogs, either,” laughed Swan.
In addition to the nearly 800 dancers, powwow attendees can also expect to see 25 drum groups from all over the country performing, some of them during the grand entry.
“We’ll have the veterans with the flags, royalties from other reservations, all the different types of dancers, and then the teenage boys and kids – they all dance their own style as they come in,” said Swan.
White Earth residents continue to put their modern-day fingerprint on the traditional gathering with newer events, such as a 5K run/walk through White Earth, a variety of food vendors, beadwork, leatherwork, T-shirts and other native crafts.
Also unlike the old days, drugs and alcohol are not allowed on the powwow grounds.
“This is a positive event for us because a lot of times the news out of the reservation isn’t good, but this is family-orientated.”
Although the event doesn’t begin until Friday June 10, people are expected to begin filtering into the town of White Earth as early as Tuesday.
“People used to bring teepees, but now they’ll be bringing in RV’s and pull-behind campers,” said Swan, “people just camp right there on the powwow grounds.”
You can bet the traditional campfires will be roaring, although for a different reason.
“They used to be for lighting the area, but now they’re for people to sit around and tell big stories,” laughed Swan.
Regardless of any twist or turn or obstacle or change the White Earth powwow has gone through over 143 years, the intention remains the same.
“It’s a celebration of our identity … it’s who we are,” said Swan, “It always has been and still is just a time to get together and have fun.”