BALL CLUB, Minnesota
When the children dance at the Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Days pow wow money is thrown at their feet in a symbolic gesture of respect. The money is then collected and given to the elders, who watch on with great smiles from the elders’ booth.
Veterans, the youth, women, and elders are all honored at this traditional pow wow, now celebrating its 47th year, in multiple ways. Many of which are sacred and cannot be recorded by camera or sound. For example there are the songs of the drums. Each drum possesses within it a song which is special – a song within that only that drum can play.
Then there are the power rings which form a circle around the pow wow ring, used to hoist individual flags for family members who have passed on in active combat overseas. These flags must be raised by a veteran, and preferably a veteran who is a member of the family. I spoke with Don Schaaf, a veteran that saw combat in Beirut. Don was there to raise a flag for his father, Al Schaaf, who had fallen as a paratrooper in Korea. “It’s basically how [we] grieve and how [we] deal,” he explained.
What makes this particular pow wow special is that it features approximately 300 dancers and concentrates on the old and the young. My take for a story was to attempt to document how the knowledge of the dance is passed down from the old to the young, from generation to generation.
When I went to the source – a senior elder of this Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe – he instructed me in the best possible method. Instead of answering my series of prepared questions, he encouraged me to watch and to listen and to feel – to learn about the pow wow by witnessing it firsthand, for myself. Good advice from a professional educator. John Mitchell, the elder, is 87 years old and just won the National Education Indian Elder Award. He told me that dancing cannot be taught – that it must be watched and appreciated. That there’s a love about it that must come from within – a love that can be passed from generation to generation.
And funny enough, when I spoke with Andrew Wakonabo, a winning boy crowned “Mii-Gwitch Mahnomen Brave” from last year, he said the same thing, explaining, “I pretty much learned myself – watching other people dance.” The winning dancers are crowned “brave” and “princess” and their title is more complicated than simply wearing a crown and a banner. Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Councilman Joe Gotchie explained that once they win, for the entire year they must “demonstrate responsibilities [so] that other youth look up to them.”
There are all sorts of dances at the pow wow and members must be dressed in full regalia to be permitted to participate in competition. Here we witnessed grass, traditional, jingle dress (healing dress) and fancy shell dancers. There are also dances for everyone in the audience, dances for the entire community and all visitors to participate in.
When I met with the councilman the night before the pow wow he told me of an aunt of his who back in his rebellious youth was a real hard case. She’d get all the boys riled up and excited about the pow wow. “You know the pow wow’s coming,” she’d exhort, “yelling and cussing and telling us we had to sort ourselves out and get ourselves in line.” Joe broke down while he told me the story – he said that it was for her that he would dance – that to this day he’s going to all of this work year in and year out (now running the show) just to make this aunt proud. Even though the aunt has been gone now for several years, he can still hear her.
There’s a bond between the old and the young within the Native American community that other cultures can learn from. The Ojibwe historically used complex pictures on sacred birch bark scrolls to communicate their knowledge.
Today, I learned that for the Ojibwe, dance communicates love. I saw a lot of smiles and felt a feeling that as one older member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe explained “is impossible to put into words”. A language all its own which is positive and knows no age.