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Pow wow celebrates indigenous culture and end of pandemic restrictions

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Aurora Rae
A young dancer competes during the 37th Annual Saginaw Chippewa Pow wow July 24 in Mount Pleasant, Mich.

The Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe celebrated its first pow wow since the lifting of pandemic restrictions. This year's annual festival is extra special.

Thousands of people gathered over the weekend in Mount Pleasant for the 37th annual Saginaw Chippewa Pow Wow – Jiingtamok in the native language.

After over a year of stillness in the world, people were able to celebrate each other - and life - through movement, and music.

“It really reignites the spirit and makes us feel positive and that we're carrying on these traditions even through having a pandemic,” vice chair of the pow wow committee Elizabeth Chivis said.

Participants came to mid-Michigan from near and far to share Native American culture and traditions.

Lori Nahdee, pow wow committee member, said twice as many people attended this year compared to in 2019 as everyone was eager to reunite after a cancelled event last year.

“There's a lot of people that I know, we haven’t seen them in a couple of years so it’s going to be exciting to see everybody,” she said.

The three-day event featured contests in dancing, drums and other performances called specials.

Each day kicked off with a grand entry. Flag bearers and dancers of all ages entered the arena as drums and songs filled the air.

“The job of the drum is to bring peace to the people,” pow wow committee member Dan Jackson said.

Pow wows attract people from many different tribes, thus, different languages, but at the event, Jackson said that’s not an issue.

“Language isn’t a barrier, it's in the melody; it’s in the beat,” he said.

He says there are stories behind nearly every aspect of the event - drums, dance, song and even regalia.

The basic types of dress – and dance – include traditional, grass, and fancy for men, and traditional, jingle, and fancy for women.

These three common styles have unique differences in look and movement - depending on where the tribe is from.

Traditional dance keeps the feet close to the ground and moves to the beat of the drum according to Tribal Tech’s Julie White Pigeon.

The fancy dance involves “a lot of spins and kicks and twirls.”

The jingle dance - for women only - is a healing dance.

Dan Jackson said he has heard two different stories about the meaning of the grass dance but one popular interpretation is “there was dancers to mat down the grass.”

Judges of the pow wow based their decisions on people’s participation throughout the whole weekend - not just while dancing according to Nahdee.

Thousands of dollars were spread across the top winners in each of seven age categories: juniors, teens, junior adults, senior adults, golden age, and platinum age.

Committee members say nearly all aspects of indigenous culture tie to the Earth and animals

Marie Schuyler-Dreaver, with Tribal Tech said tevent - held outside - enabled a sacred connection with nature.

“When we’re dancing on mother earth itself it just gravitates to that heartbeat, and you can really feel it,” she said.

Dozens of vendors set up around the perimeter of the grounds under white tents. A few sold foods, but the majority sold handmade arts and crafts.

Noreen Montour, a vendor from Canada, has attended the pow wow since she was young, but it was her first time selling products.

She said she only recently realized they could leave the county.

“We were just kind of holding our breath to see if we (could) actually make it and it was just last week where we were like ‘okay, we got the go’,” she said.

Specials at the pow wow featured a variety of dances including woodland and chicken dances.

One group was an international biker club - Redrum is the men’s chapter and Red Spirit is the women’s.

Their performances aimed to bring awareness to issues in Native American communities.

Red spirit leader Martha Wemigwans said they wanted to bring attention to the hundreds of children found from Indian boarding schools.

“We want to give their souls peace and comfort and let them know ‘it’s okay, you can go home’,” she said. “Every angle that we had in that from making the ribbons, from making the ribbon skirt, from the beadwork, just everything was just so heartfelt. You’re looking at your children like I could never had that happen to my baby.”

The men’s grass dance special was to encourage positivity and protection of children and women by men according to Redrum’s Mount Pleasant chapter leader, Regis Ferland.

Members of the club participated in a bike run on Saturday. In about an hour, they rode towards Midland, down to Shepherd and north back up to Mount Pleasant.

Bikers paid to ride and half the money raised went towards a cause of their choice
Raising awareness also entails education - and education can break stereotypes.

Mia Dante, a Central Michigan University senior, said the pow wow shed light on the name she and thousands of other students represent.

“It showed me a side of Mount pleasant and CMU that I have never seen before,” she said. “It was an experience that I will never forget.”

Dante said she thinks others from the public could benefit from attending an event like this.

“When we see them in everyday life we all blend in,” she said. “But here they get to show everyone their culture and background and what they stand for and their beliefs and I just feel like we could learn a little bit from it.

Prior to 1978, pow wows - among other aspects of indigenous culture - were illegal.

Chivis said the ability to gather in masses is extremely important for future generations to see and be a part of.

“We need our children to see how interconnected we are,” she said.

Chivis said, nonetheless, there are still many ways in which indigenous people are hurt, or hindered, by outsiders and inviting the public to learn can bridge that divide.

“These issues also are very important for the public to understand that we didn't have the same freedoms, and we still are fighting for our freedom,” she said. “We’re… needing the public to understand that we didn't have the same rights. And we still don't.”

Aurora is a photojournalist major and an undecided minor going into her sophomore year at Central Michigan University. After college, she hopes to work as a photojournalist.