The dancers are a swirl of red, blue, and purple, their heads crowned with shocks of brightly-dyed animal fur and conical bells jingling at their ankles. Deliberate steps fall in time with rhythmic drum beats.
This is the Grand Entry at the 6th Annual Traditional Powwow, an intertribal gathering held earlier this month at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
"Powwows are giant family reunions," says Lori Shustha, director of the Grand Valley American Indian Lodge, a nonprofit that offers emergency food assistance for Native families. "People come from all over to see people they know."
Throughout the event, young boys, burly warriors, and wizened elders blend and arc their voices over pounding drums. The deep-belly tones rise and resonate in the high-ceilinged room. Traditionally, songs without words were performed at intertribal events to prevent misunderstandings between tribes that spoke different languages.
"Intertribal music has no words," says 29-year-old Ben Williams, the chairman of the museum’s powwow planning committee. "That way you know one tribe isn't talking smack about another."
Following the Grand Entry, an elder delivers an invocation and prayer to Gichi-manidoo, the Creator. Veterans, known as ogichidaag, are also honored at the powwow.
"Our ogichidaag are very important," says Williams, a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians. "If it weren't for them, we'd have even fewer numbers than we do. Ogichidaag deserve that high praise."
Many of the veterans at the powwow have U.S. armed forces patches on their ceremonial clothing. Despite their people's troubled relationship with the U.S. government, they served it proudly.
Powwows aren't just a family affair. Annual powwows at the Public Museum and Riverside Park give the general public a chance to experience the rich heritage of the Three Fires people, a loose confederation of groups that descended from the Anishinabek nation.
Originally residing in the Land of the Dawn (eastern North America), the Anishinabek migrated westward in the 1700s in response to a prophecy warning that their people would be destroyed if they did not move. As their journey progressed, the Anishinabek split into six groups, including the Three Fires “brothers” — Ojibwe (also known as the Chippewa), the eldest, followed by Ottawa and Potawatomi.
All three share linguistic and cultural similarities. They embrace the values of respect, sharing possessions, and the interconnectedness of humans and nature.
"Mutual respect is the fundamental teaching of our people. Human beings are no greater than the animals or the beautiful fish," explains Debra Muller, manager of the Norton Mounds Project—an effort to preserve and maintain 13 Native burial sites located in Millenium Park. "We are tied to our Earth Mother and all the gifts that she brings. And so I am to walk in a sacred manner and live a life of service to all people and all things.”
Lori Shustha also follows the traditional teachings.
"I was taught: don't take more than you need. Everything has a spirit. It's all there for a reason,” she says.
This deep respect for nature gives Native people a unique perspective on environmental issues, such as bottling water.
“Water is the Mother's blood,” says Williams. “Once we start tainting that…" he pauses and shakes his head, "let's just say it's not a good sign that we bottle it up and sell it."
Three Fires, two worlds
Retaining cultural identity, a challenge for all minority groups, is especially difficult for Native peoples, who make up less than one percent of the population in the U.S. and Michigan. Fewer than 6,000 people of American Indian ancestry reside in West Michigan.
Federal recognition and tribal affiliation helps protect Native heritage. Twelve Michigan tribes are federally acknowledged, which affords them a government-to-government relationship with the United States.
"Their people are citizens of the U.S. and of their respective nations," says Chris Carron, a member of the Public Museum's curatorial staff. "This goes all the way back to which tribes could negotiate treaties or document their stake in the land.”
To attain federal recognition, tribes must meet seven criteria that prove autonomy and connection to historic groups. The burden of proof falls on the tribes seeking federal acknowledgement. Genocide, displacement, and destruction of records can make it tough to hit all seven points. The largest tribe in the Grand Rapids area, the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians, is not currently recognized by the government, although a portion of its membership is recognized as the Littler River Band of Ottawa Indians. The Match-e-be-nash-she-wish Band of Pottawatomi in Wayland was acknowledged in 1998.
Obtaining tribal affiliation presents similar challenges to individuals. Unlike many European American genealogies, Native families are often hard to trace. Genocide and displacement, followed by boarding schools and adoption initiatives, have left holes in many families. Some tribes require quarter blood or higher, proven on paper, which can prevent some parents from claiming membership for their children. Other tribes base eligibility on lineage rather than blood quantum.
“The genealogy is fascinating,” says Shustha, whose family has been researching its genealogy for 20 years.
Starting in the 1880s, the government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs ran residential schools intended to “kill the Indian, and save the man” by forcibly divorcing Native students from their culture and re-educating them for white society. The Indian Adoption Project displaced an estimated 68 percent of all Native American children between 1941 and 1978.
“There is still a lot of naïveté about American history,” says Ben Williams. “It’s really sugar-coated. There’s no recognition of the genocide that took place here.” Historians estimate one-third of the world’s Jewish population died in the Holocaust. Ninety percent of Native Americans were killed by war and disease. The father of a two-year-old daughter, Williams also cites the persistent Native American stereotypes seen in the names and practices of major sports teams. “People are desensitized to it. People sit in the stands making fun of our songs and our feathers. They don’t understand the effect that has on our children.”
Filling in the gaps
“In today’s urban society, it is hard to remain close to our traditions,” says Debra Muller.
Betty Davis, Native American Education program director for Grand Rapids Public Schools, is working to change that. When Davis moved here from North Dakota, where she grew up on a reservation, she immediately felt the lack of a central location for Native peoples to connect.
“I missed the support that you get from the reservation. Not the reservation itself, but your family,” Davis says. “We’re trying to build that up here.”
In the Native American Education program, students learn the traditional teachings of respect and Anishinaabe culture. Davis, along with friends Jason Quigno and Loretta Castaneda, also participates in Aanishinaabemowin language classes at Straight Elementary School. Classes are free and open to the public.
“Our language has a lot to do with our spiritual side,” says Quigno. “This will strengthen the people and help them get their identity.”
Aanishinaabemowin is an elegant, descriptive language. When Quigno, in his quiet, measured voice, tells me his Indian name, it sounds like a whisper of wind gently bumping over stones. I try to repeat it, but it comes out all peaky and jagged. He smiles politely at my attempt.
“Our language is extremely important. Suppressing a language is a sub route to extermination,” says Williams. “Now that I have my daughter, I have more incentive to learn it.”
Today fewer than 16,000 people speak the Three Fires dialects.
Quigno, Davis, and Castaneda also take part in a healing circle, started after the tragic death of Castaneda’s nephew. In Anglo-American culture, talk therapy and mediation are relatively recent phenomena, but Native peoples have long used talking circles to deal with personal and community issues.
“Sometimes the circle is my life line,” says Davis. “I know what I bring to the circle, stays in the circle.”
“It’s a safe place,” agrees Castaneda. “You share your story. You share your pain. You share your happiness. No one breaks the confidentiality.”
Although it arose from a personal tragedy within their community, anyone is welcome to the circle. Sometimes perceived as closed, in actuality West Michigan’s Native community actively tries to build bridges with others. According to Shustha, interaction between Native Americans and the larger community is improving. People are working together more. The Grand Valley Lodge’s emergency food program was expanded to help non-Native people, while the Riverside Park powwow, which Shustha helps plan, is an annual showcase for the community.
Muller, in addition to her work with Norton Mounds, is involved with numerous community initiatives, including the Theater of Three Fires, which will perform the Native perspective on Thanksgiving next week Friday and Saturday, Nov. 28 and 29, at the Public Museum.
“I love working in the community,” says Muller. "I'm a longtime fighter and advocate for the Native people, but I like working with non-Native people as well.”
Ben Wiliams uses his MySpace blog to help people plug into events, like the upcoming screening of the Canary Effect, a film that will re-educate people about American history.
He hopes that these efforts — including language revival, cultural events, and increased knowledge of American history — will help revitalize today’s Native communities and ensure the perpetuation of their culture into the future.
“What we do now will affect the next seven generations,” says Betty Davis. “We may not be able to see the seeds we’ve planted, but our grandchildren and their children will.”
Ruth Terry is a freelance writer and artist living in the East Hills neighborhood. She also works as a fund developer and consultant for local nonprofit organizations. She wishes special thanks to all who opened up their homes and hearts and provided her with the resources to write this story. Miigwech jayêk ginwa.
Photo:All photos of the Powwow are by Jennifer Huizinga (Grand Rapids Public Museum)Photos of Debra Muller and Jason Quigno are by Brian Kelly