For decades parents had one-stop shopping when it came to showing their children the beauty, poignance and pageantry of the American Indian: the Stand Rock Indian Ceremonial along the Wisconsin River at Wisconsin Dells. The spectacle drew Indian performers from all over the Americas.
Until 1997, it was Wisconsin's best-known introduction to tribal culture and traditions. There are multiple perspectives about why the Ho-Chunk Nation's 78 years of performances for tourists ended. We won't try to decipher those here, but there is something important to know about Indian ceremonials. For parents who want their children to see the kind of performances the parents saw growing up, Native American Tourism of Wisconsin, a tribal consortium, has an answer. Its nativewisconsin.com is preparing a comprehensive calendar of public events that includes traditional powwows, some of which distinguish one tribal culture from another (meanwhile, check our calendar below.)
Native American powwows celebrate the change of seasons, impending harvests, tribal pride, military service and more. About 20 of these colorful events — lively dancing plus pageantry — occur from spring through autumn in Wisconsin, which is home to 11 tribal nations that own and are environmental stewards of at least 500,000 acres.
Powwows have a few things in common. A pulsating drumbeat is the backbone of music. Drums set the pace for dancers and show respect for the heartbeat of all living creatures.
Raptor feathers, vibrant fabrics and intricate beadwork are the hallmark of traditional regalia. Watch for symbols that identify tribes and personal touches that represent individual lives. An elder who has survived breast cancer might decorate her skirt or shawl with pink ribbons. A turtle, bear, eagle or other wildlife image help identify specific clans.
"Regalia is specific to the dancer," said Ernest Stevens III, executive director of Native American Tourism of Wisconsin. "It is customized with little things that represent your own life. My father's old badge, from being a police officer, is a part of his" in the Oneida tribe.
He said these outfits can be a $500 to $2,000 investment.
When powwow activity begins with a nondenominational public worship service, not unusual on Sundays, anyone who wishes lines up to receive a kind of communion, typically cedar oil (applied by thumb to forehead) and a whiff of smoldering tobacco (considered a sacred substance). Both are offered with a simple message, such as "Great Spirit, protect and help."
Tobacco also is burned or gifted in tiny pouches as a symbol of gratitude and hope for safe travels. The Grand Entry, a processional of tribal leaders and their community members, involves children to elders in precise order and groupings.
Depending on location and time of year, more non-natives than Native Americans might attend a powwow, Stevens said.
Typical dance categories include jingle dress and fancy shawl dancing for women, smoke and grass dances for men. Powwow settings are diverse: inside arenas with bleacher seating to rural and outdoor sites with few man-made features.
The Menominee Nation's powwow site faces a forest in Keshena, and seating is set within a natural slope. The Oneida gather within an arbor near Green Bay.
"They are all surrounded by beautiful country," Stevens said. The Red Cliff reservation, near Bayfield, overlooks Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Lac Courtes Oreilles, also known as LCO, is known for its fine fishing in the Chippewa Flowage near Hayward.
Some powwows are traditional and ceremonial. Others are competitions with prize money. Decisions like who to invite into the inner circle and where dancing occurs will depend upon the powwow's purpose and host's rules.
Robert Van Zile, an Ojibwe language teacher in Mole Lake, said his tribe's powwows treat the arena as a sacred space. That means no casual entry within the dancing circle or running through it.
"Mino-aya-win," he said. Translation: I feel good when I'm here.
Regardless of site rules, all of these event hosts welcome non-natives to witness the traditions and rituals.
"We encourage people to come and participate — eat the food, buy something traditional to the culture," Stevens said. "At intertribal powwows, all can participate (in some of the dancing) and do whatever — an Irish jig, if you want."
Kris Schalla of Wheaton takes that literally, attending powwows in regalia and participating in the Grand Entry even though she jokes that her ancestry includes "just a teaspoonful" of Lakota lineage.
"When you come to a powwow, take it as a way to taste the culture," advised Ronnie Preston, a San Carlos Apache from Arizona who moved to Milwaukee about 20 years ago. "Watch the different styles of dance, listen to the music and ask questions."