There was a time when if someone were to have asked me, “Have you ever danced at a powwow?” I would have said, “What’s a powwow?”
Wouldn’t you think that someone coming from Minnesota would have at least a small amount of knowledge of Native American culture? The truth is that anything I knew about Indians came from going to the Friday night cowboy and Indian movies at my hometown Gem theatre, reading Lone Ranger and Tonto comic books or watching Princess Summer-Fall-Winter-Spring on the Howdy Dowdy TV show. In school the only time we talked about Native Americans was during Thanksgiving and when we studied about General Custer.
It wasn’t until I worked at Ponsford on the White Earth Reservation that my appreciation of Native American culture began to form. And, yes, I was asked the question, “Have you ever danced in a powwow?” I’m not going to tell you what I said.
This past couple of weeks there were at least three powwows in the area — a healing powwow at the Sanford Center, one in Ponemah and one in Cass Lake. It had been awhile since I had been to the Ponemah Powwow so my daughter and I made the trip along the eastern shore of Red Lake to the city of Ponemah. Driving beside the white sandy shore I was reminded of the beauty of this huge natural spectacular attraction residing within a 45-minute drive from Bemidji.
The powwow was everything I hoped it would be. Lots of dancers dressed in beautiful regalia; lots of people of all ages talking, visiting, watching, listening; lots of food venders, and just a whole bunch of color, commotion and movement. I’m glad I went and I’m glad my daughter had the opportunity to experience it with me. We came away knowing more than what we had known before.
One of the lines that resonated with me in David Treuer’s book, The Rez, was, “Most people will go a lifetime without knowing an Indian or spending any time on a reservation.” I’m sure that is true and what is even more true is most Minnesotans have never seen a reservation up close like attending a powwow or visiting a scenic or historic landmark or stopping in to visit a tribal headquarters like the beautiful building in White Earth.
What’s so special about a reservation? For me, it’s like traveling to another country without having to check my luggage.
Think about it. If you had the opportunity to go to Germany or France free of charge, wouldn’t you take it? Sure you would because you would be seeing a new country, hearing a different language, experiencing different customs and just visiting with people whose culture is different than yours. When I travel to any of the three surrounding reservations or the ones in northern Wisconsin, this is what I experience.
To me, it’s a learning adventure but with one important distinction. We all have one thing in common; we are all Americans. Diversity is a huge part of our American way of life and it’s important to take advantage of it and to learn to appreciate it.
It’s interesting that politicians seldom mention Native Americans in their speeches. They refer to the issues and needs of African Americans, Hispanic and Latino Americans, Asian Americans, but seldom mention the first Americans. Even though they represent only 1% of our population, just out of respect for Native Americans, they could be mentioned more as well as their sacrifice to make our lives better. We don’t often think about that, do we?
This lack of recognition probably comes from the fact that few of us have ever taken “Native American Appreciation 101”. If it were up to me I would require every student in everystate university in Minnesota to take at least one class in “Native American Appreciation 101.” To use the old cliché, it’s a no brainer.
We could also do more right here in Bemidji. For example, we have a science center, we have an art center and a music center and a history center, but there is no Native American
Center that is intended for the everyday citizen and visitor to Bemidji. It really is a shame. Reservations could reciprocate by having visitor centers.
We talk about statues honoring Native Americans. That’s fine. We post Ojibwa words in our places of business and that is super but let’s really get serious and do something no other city in Minnesota has done. Bemidji needs a Native American Culture Center.
Taking an interest in Native American culture is a personal choice and we all don’t share that interest. Still, given the role Native Americans have played in our history we need to do more to lift up the culture and provide opportunities to learn to appreciate what we have around us.
I am glad I took the time to attend the powwow and shake hands with some friends I had not seen for a while. It was a good experience and as I always say, I learned a lot since I knew it all.
JOHN R. EGGERS of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.