Powwow regalia is more than just captivating. Each bit of thread, feather and fur reminds both dancer and audience that Native Americans are again free to express their religion, their traditions, their selves.
This article was featured in the March 2008 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
It’s a breezy spring afternoon at the Brimley School football field in the eastern Upper Peninsula. Heavy drum beats and the shrill voices of singers rise above the commotion of excited kids who have been released from classes for this special school event. A teacher tries to keep restless children corralled on the bleachers. Then Chris Gordon’s voice booms over a loudspeaker, “It’s an inter-tribal dance. Everrryyyone, come on. Have some fun.” The students break for the dance circle.
Kids in blue jeans and sweatshirts stomp and spin next to women stepping lightly in elegantly beaded and fringed deerskin dresses. Little boys chase each other, weaving between dancers. Chris cautions them to watch out for one another. Two young girls share a shawl, giggling and bumping shoulders as they dance. Other girls swoop with arms open wide, displaying fringed shawls that wave like brilliant butterfly wings.
Native celebrations weren’t always so exuberant. Chris remembers his first powwow, back in the early 1970’s, one of the first to be held in the eastern Upper Peninsula. He gripped his father’s hand, wondering why he was there at Rotary Park in Sault Ste. Marie, watching a small group of dancers dressed up like Indians. He couldn’t relate to them. Like many of the other Anishinabek there, he was a victim of indoctrination, residential schools and religious crime laws that had forced the Native culture underground. He didn’t know it then, but he was watching the beginning of a resurgence in Anishinabek culture that would explode into the lively celebration he would find himself presiding over more than 30 years later.
As a young boy at those Rotary Park powwows, Chris would have been able to gaze across the St. Mary’s River and see Sugar Island, where fellow Anishinabek Art Leighton’s extended family once carried out Native traditions in secret. Art is now the tribal historian at the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, with a Ph.D. in history. But in the days of secrecy, he learned his Anishinabek name in the privacy of a family gathering behind closed doors. In those days, while young Art played with his cousins at Anishinabek community gatherings, he overheard the old people speaking in the soft round sounds of Anishinabekmowin, chuckling at jokes only they understood. They seemed comfortable in a shared culture with traditions they didn’t have to explain to one another—traditions that had been so criticized by the dominant culture, they were at risk of being lost.
These elders lived during the time when the public face of Native culture had been watered down to the tipi-and-birch-bark-canoe image popularized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Ironically, Art’s relatives and other Sugar Island elders used this popularity, this Indian-ness appropriated by non-Natives, as their chance to publicly celebrate being Anishinabek, dressing up in feather headdresses and fringed tunics and pants for parades and for tourists at Soo Locks Park. His great-uncle Charlie Andrews even presented a full-feathered headdress to Governor G. Mennen Williams during one of the governor’s visits to the Upper Peninsula.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act once again made it legal to “believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian … and freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.” But by then, the cultural re-awakening had already begun at Bahweting—the name given to this culturally significant area in the eastern U.P., which, for centuries, served as a gathering place for Anishinabek.
Today, powwow dancers are free to express themselves through plain or elaborate dance outfits, each as individual as a dancer’s own blend of family history, beliefs, life stories and preferences. This story profiles four Anishinabek from Bahweting who express that cultural re-awakening and their own personal spirits through powwow regalia.
Cathy Nertoli Devoy’s workspace, a window-walled room in a house on the Sault Tribe reservation on Shunk Road, is alight with sun and cluttered with the tools of regalia making. I sit in a rocking chair next to a wall of shelves filled with plastic bins that overflow with cloth and satin ribbons. Cathy’s cheerful 12-year-old daughter, Rita, flits in and out. “If you want to listen, just sit down over there,” her mother warns, gesturing to a spot near the wood-burning stove.
When Cathy was her daughter’s age, her aunties and mother shooed her out of the kitchen when they wanted to talk about the old ways. While Cathy pretended to watch TV, she cocked an ear toward the hushed voices at the kitchen table, talking about certain Anishinabek traditions they wouldn’t admit to practicing when asked point-blank. She heard about their men who sneaked into the woods to bang on tin drums; she heard about memorial feasts, disguised as picnics at the cemetery, held to honor ancestors. She learned about an entire beautiful Anishinabek culture kept hidden because of the demeaning experiences it had caused her elders.
Fortunately, one of these aunties, Mary Murray, was more forthcoming. She shook her little wrinkled brown finger at Cathy and warned, “If you don’t remember this, no one else will.” Then she told stories of their ancestors from 200 years ago as though those ancestors were right there, sitting with Cathy and her aunt Mary in the same room. Cathy heeded her auntie’s warning. She went on to follow a path of Native studies, and she now shares that culture with a younger generation, making regalia and teaching traditions.
Today, Cathy has a whole closet stuffed with regalia. Her own first official regalia is carefully stored in plastic, a prim white cotton strap dress and jacket—a style particularly Anishinabek, lightly embroidered and beaded. “I thought I was fat,” she laughs, surveying the conservative, slender dress. She holds up one of the dresses she wears now, a Plains Indian–style long-fringed buckskin dress. Over it she wears a white yoke bordered in maroon velvet intricately beaded with elaborate flowers, which identify it as Anishinabek. The dress depicts Cathy’s own maturing spirit.
She pulls out an elegant black velvet dress, hung with small white megis shells, based on an old story of the origin of the people of the Three Fires—a tale that depicts how the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatamie were one people. Next, a jingle dress, almost too heavy to be lifted, strung with cones made from the tops of tobacco chew cans that rattle while dancing sacred healing dances. Back in the sewing room, we watch Rita demonstrate a hoop dance, her current passion. It’s an old and still popular dance performed throughout the country. Her appliquéd vest and skirt shimmer with blue, orange and lime green satin. Beads and small mirrors gleam, and eagle fluffs tremble on a headband and barrettes. Rita pulls small hulalike hoops from a coordinating bag and squirms into them. She twists so the hoops intertwine and extend the length of her arms to give the appearance of eagle wings. Another bend of the hoops and she sits in an eagle’s nest, a quick curl and she’s a hawk.
In one generation, Cathy’s plain white cotton dress has given way to this profusion of color that recaptures old Anishinabek culture and incorporates current life. Her auntie Mary would be pleased.
Rita Boulley ponders the question of regalia and her Anishinabek traditions. We’re drinking tea, eating coffee cake at her kitchen table. She disappears upstairs in search of family photos and returns with a handful. There’s an early picture of her father, Abraham Boulley at age 9 or 10 on Sugar Island, wearing a full-feathered headdress made with the feathers of his first kill, a turkey. His fringed shirt is appliquéd with a turtle representing his clan and a bear for his name, Mukwa.
There’s her grandmother, Jenny Williams, with a 1940’s-style haircut of short curls. She’s wearing a narrow beaded headband and a beaded necklace over a fringed dress—the outfit she wore when weaving black ash baskets while sitting in the window of the Ojibway Hotel on Portage Avenue. Wearing regalia publicly announced that she was unafraid of being Anishinabek, a lesson Rita absorbed.
As a girl, Rita didn’t know about powwows. That came later, when she was in her 20’s. Now she frequently serves as lead female dancer and makes stunning regalia.
Grandmother Jenny wouldn’t recognize Rita’s sewing room. Beautiful dresses hang on the wall: an elegant, white, freeform deerskin dress embellished with abalone buttons and megis shells, reminders of Rita’s time living in Micronesia; a traditional skirt and shawl in her own spirit colors of dark green, lavender, light blue, pink and gold; a shawl with a pink Three Fires Potawatomi–design blouse. Rita sews for many people, starting each new outfit by burning sweetgrass or sage and praying with tobacco. She knows she needs to capture the wearer’s spirit, whether it’s with ladybugs in her grand-daughter Lilly’s shawl (Lilly loves anything to do with bugs) or a fan of crow-feathers in honor or her own name, Dancing Crow Woman.
She surveys the room. Everything here means something to her. Everything here is done with love, she says. That’s the gift she has to offer. For her, that’s what being Anishinabek is. None of it is someone else’s idea of how things ought to be.
Bnaaswi Biiaaswah’s apartment walls are covered in family photos: grinning nieces and nephews in regalia, his son and daughter, his grandkids, his parents in various stages of their lives. Eagle feathers hang everywhere. Small trays of tiny seed beads, carefully sorted by color, lie on a small table near the window. Bnaaswi is beading 50 feathers to present to survivors of residential schools—designed to indoctrinate Native children in Western ways—at the Garden River Healing Lodge in Ontario.
Bnaaswi grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. His childhood summers sound idyllic: living in the woods with his lumberjack father, where he learned to cook, use an axe, chase away bears, keep the cabin tidy and drive while barely able to see over the dashboard.
Public school wasn’t as much fun. He didn’t fit in … was called racist names … couldn’t relate to the teachers—until Indian studies classes began and the Niigaanagiizhik Club was formed, allowing Anishnabek students to dance powwow style. Bnaaswi laughs at the memory of his first regalia. It was a humble affair, pretty much just bells, breechcloth and headbands. But dancing at his first real powwow, alongside others who were the same as him—even though some of them were relatively resplendent in eagle feathers and beadwork—made him feel proud.
Between the ages of about 18 and 30 he forgot this pride, serving in the Marine Corps overseas, away from other Natives most of the time. He started drinking and didn’t quit until undergoing treatment at an American Indian rehab center in Baraga, Michigan, and a halfway house in Marquette. There he started dancing again and participating in Anishinabek rites—traditional ceremonies and powwow celebrations that have helped keep him sober for 19 years.
Bnaaswi gently removes his dance regalia from a suitcase—a bead-heavy belt, rosette headband, cuffs, dance sticks gleaming with color and shine, a bonfire of reds, oranges and yellow, bordered in deep blue. He does all the beadwork on a loom of his own design. The outfit is for “fancy dancing,” a fast-paced, swirling, stomping dance.
It’s called fancy dancing for good reason. The dance was developed during the days of Buffalo Bill and the Wild West shows, when powwows started to produce revenue and audiences wanted something flashy. Fancy dancing was the result.
Bnaaswi’s regalia radiates fun and pride. When he wears it, people ask to have their photographs taken with him. He danced in the 1999 movie Grey Owl and has won the Baraga Midnight Two-Step Championship of the World four times.
It’s nice to get that attention he says, and laughs.
Richard Lewis pushes his long, graying hair back over his shoulder. He’s leaning back in an easy chair in the Native art store, Mahdezewin International, that he and his friend Maggie run in the Soo. Drum music plays softly and paintings that draw from Anishinabek legends and culture hang on the walls—spirit beings, the forest, islands, boulders.
Richard is a storyteller. He starts at any subject and meanders off, one thing reminding him of another. His traditional regalia tells stories, too. It’s made of moose and deer hide, bone, ermine and sumac, decorated with beaded and quilled designs that incorporate personal items and symbols from his life and family. Each prompts its own tale.
Take, for example, the beaded Thunderbird necklace. It belonged to his father. “I don’t know where he got it, maybe a souvenir store,” Richard says. Whenever fellow Natives came from Wikwemikong or Chicago, he’d put it on. “It’s a symbol of the village and community … like a Christian wearing a cross. Without saying a word, people would understand where he was coming from.”
The earth colors of his regalia—blue, green, purple—steer his story in another direction. “Every day is good, even if it’s rainy, cloudy, snowing; you are alive, you can feel the heat, the cold,” Richard continues. “In winter, it’s a time for reflection because everything has gone to sleep. In summer, a farmer is thinking of crops. In winter, things slow down. Fishing, berry picking are finished. Winter is when stories are told … in lodges and huts.”
Beaded red and blue stripes circle his dance stick. “Anishinabek villages assigned one of two colors to its people, alternating within families,” Richard explains. “If a job needed doing, one color would do it. For example, red would go fishing, blue traveled south to barter for corn, red headed west to fight the Lakota. In this way, people of all ages were always left behind to care for the children and the elderly and to protect the village.”
His bustle bristles with eagle feathers, given to him from a nephew who had been in the military. A white deerskin pipe bag is studded with medals, including one depicting a rifle, earned by one of his two brothers who served in Vietnam. “Veterans can give eagle feathers. Veterans used to be brave men or brave women who hunted, explored new areas, battled to survive. They were the providers, the protectors.”
Powwow and regalia are for “showing uniqueness,” Richard says. “Our dance is a form of prayer and an expression of spirit through sound, motion and color. This is who we are.”
Leslie Askwith writes from Sault Ste. Marie. She wrote “The New Homesteaders” in our January 2008 issue. [email protected]