MOUNTAIN LAKE, Minn. — A southern Minnesota town festival has been called the "Pow Wow" since its inception in 1923, but that may change soon.
The event's sponsoring organization, the Mountain Lake Chamber of Commerce, is considering a request to rename the town's celebration. T Carter, who grew up in Mountain Lake in Cottonwood County, explained that the "Pow Wow" is not a traditional Native American ceremony, but a non-Native carnival, road race and parade.
"Ever since I was younger, I knew this name was wrong." Carter said. "At best, it's not correct — it's not a powwow."
Carter is well-practiced at rebranding away from Native appropriations. She worked on the effort to change the name of Washington's NFL team and has facilitated mascot changes in high schools nationwide.
She wasn't the only one concerned about the name. Carter compiled a packet of letters from Mountain Lake alumni, cultural organizations and three Dakota Nations, listing the problems with calling the festival a powwow and asking the Chamber to change the name.
"I don't think it was named out of malice or disrespect, however, just because it's been used for nearly a century, doesn't make it right to continue using it," Carter wrote. "When you know better, you do better. I am asking Mountain Lake to please do better."
Carter outlined the festival's history of choosing a "Princess Chicka-Ga-Mi," wearing fake headdresses and using caricatures of Native stereotypes in the event's advertising. While those practices are no longer, keeping the name "Pow Wow" is an incorrect use of the term, she said.
A letter from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community explained that a traditional powwow — or "Wacipi," in Dakota — is a Native gathering that celebrates a successful hunt or other positive event, often centering on prayer and other spiritual practices.
"It is our understanding that no Native American tribes or indigenous people are involved in the Mountain Lake Pow Wow, and rather that the term 'Pow Wow' is being used to describe a community festival," tribal leaders wrote. "'Pow Wow' shouldn't be synonymous with a carnival or festival, and we believe it should only be used in its accurate context."
The Lower Sioux and Upper Sioux Nations also included letters of support for a name change.
Continuing to call the festival a powwow "is insensitive to your Dakota neighbors who hold traditional powwows," wrote Joe Gaines, Carter's husband and a member of the Choctaw Nation. "The name belongs to them."
"At best this is sloppy use of language, but at worst it is devaluing — even mocking — the actual meaning and content of authentic powwow," wrote Mountain Lake residents Elisabeth and Ramont Harder Schrock in their letter.
A total of 18 letters of support for a name change were delivered to the Chamber of Commerce board. The letters are published on mountainlakemn.com for the public to read.
When the community was informed that the Chamber board would be voting on the request to change the name, many local residents expressed outrage at the idea. Carter said she received four death threats from folks who were upset that she had compiled letters in support of changing the name.
At a special board meeting Aug. 4, the Chamber board voted to approve changing the name of the festival, sparking resentment in some community members. Sixty percent of Chamber business members threatened to withdraw their membership over the decision. Some Mountain Lake residents found out which board members voted for the change, and resolved to punish those people by refusing to support their businesses.
A Facebook group in support of keeping the name "Pow Wow" had amassed 431 members as of Thursday afternoon, Aug. 27. One person has even created yard signs for purchase, which read, "Make Pow Wow great again."
Public backlash has been so strong that the Chamber board is now rethinking the decision to change the name.
Chamber Director Rob Anderson explained that, last week, each Chamber member business received a survey with an opportunity to comment on the potential retirement of the name "Pow Wow." Surveys are due back this week, and next week, the board will meet again to discuss the next steps.
"The Chamber Board does hear what both sides are saying," Anderson said.
Planning for the annual festival generally begins in January, he noted, which doesn't leave much time for the Chamber to come to a final decision about the event's name.