Saganing Powwow, June 27-29

From the Bay City Times:

Saganing Members Aim to Teach Indian Culture at Standish Powwow

by Helen Lounsbury

STANDISH – When tribal drummers, singers and dancers take their places this weekend for the Saganing powwow near Standish, don’t think of the event as a first.

It’s a homecoming – a celebration of origins for the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, members say.

“I get so full of emotion when I attend our cultural events,” says Mary Bukowiec, a Standish member of what is now a Mount Pleasant-based tribe. “This event will be especially meaningful… After centering things in Mount Pleasant for so long, this powwow has come home.”

Home to Saginaw Bay, where the Chippewas fished centuries before Europeans settled.

Home to the Saganing Reservation, where the U.S. government consigned the tribe in an 1855 treaty.

Home to Saganing still, where the Chippewas are rebuilding a presence with a new community center, marina and powwow arena in the shadow of the tribe’s new casino.

“We lost so much of our culture when we were sent to boarding schools,” says Steven Pego, a singer for this weekend’s powwow, referring to the tribe’s 19th-century history. “The government was trying to ‘civilize’ us, so our ceremonies and powwows were banned.

“But when you lose your traditions, you lose your spirit,” Pego continues. “The powwow is important because it’s part of this rebirth of our culture. It’s one of the practices that keeps our values and our history alive.”

Powwow means “gathering.” The event is social and celebratory – more like a family reunion than a formal ceremony, tribal members say.

Historically, Saginaw Chippewa powwows punctuated the safe return of hunters or warriors. Today the powwow celebrates a more simple reality – that of being Native American, members suggest.

Celebrating that way of life, its survival a success in itself, takes shape at the powwow through three elements – drums, dancing and singing. Each medium is critical in native tradition. Each communicates something about what the Chippewas revere most including nature, the Creator and tribal elders, members say.

“We believe our Creator put us here to care for nature, as nature people,” explains Pego, who has studied native culture for 30 years. “So even in our dancing, we step softly so as not to hurt mother earth.”

The powwow’s drums, large enough for 12 drummers to circle, symbolize the tribe’s heartbeat. Members for that reason care for the drum as they’d care for an infant, handling it watchfully, members say.

Drummers and dancers, too, take care to drum and step in rhythm.

“If we lose step with the heartbeat of our ancestors, we lose our way,” says Frank Cloutier, a Pinconning tribal member and the tribe’s communications director.

Powwow singing, finally, while it sounds repetitive to newcomers, reflects distinct pitches, rhythms, chants and meaning, Pego says. Some songs and chants have been handed down over generations.

For the Saginaw Chippewas, powwows are a twice annual event. This weekend’s powwow, formerly hosted in Chesaning, is more low-key than its counterpart, the competition powwow. The latter, held in Mount Pleasant each August, is among the 10 largest powwows nationally. The contest draws professional competitors from native tribes across the U.S., tribal officials say.

“The powwow was the way we transferred information between family members, between tribes, between young and old,” says Wally Pamame, a Pinconning tribal member. “It still serves that purpose. We’re just hoping our powwow builds strength with this move to Saganing.”

For the non-native community, Saganing’s powwow is a new opportunity for cultural exchange. Three scheduled powwows are the weekend’s centerpiece, but throughout the three-day event, visitors can find Native American foods such as corn soup and flat bread available. Traders will display, demonstrate and sell native-made jewelry, basketry and leather work. Children and families will also find special activities planned into the weekend.

All visitors will have opportunity to join the dancing inside the sacred powwow circle, organizers say. A master of ceremonies will explain to observers what the dances, regalia and other native customs mean as each unfolds.

“We’re looking at this as a great teaching opportunity,” Cloutier says. “We want to show the broader community what Native Americans are about by sharing our talents and our traditions. We hope people come and see it as a learning opportunity.”