Potawatomi Powwow

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Greg Ballew, Pokagon Potawatomi, White Thunder Singers:
Powwows aren’t just a social gathering, though they are that, too, but there [are] also spiritual issues involved. So at certain times of the year they would hold gatherings—spring, fall, harvest gatherings. This is basically what our powwow traditionally is.

Narrator (Philip Alexis, Pokagon Potawatomi):
Though powwows date back thousands of years, in more recent times the Pokagons have sponsored a powwow on Labor Day weekend that draws thousands. It’s called—

Mike Daugherty, PokagonTribal Historian:
Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa. What that means is “I quit picking huckleberries.” And then that’s literally what it means. It’s the end of the huckleberry season and it’s kind of the end of the harvest season, that’s kind of what it signifies because they always would have some kind of a doings.

Ballew:
There [are] certain traditions that have evolved. And we all try and do it the same way [so] everybody will know basically what’s going on. There’s Grand Entries, and then you have the Flag Song, and then you have the Veteran’s Song, and we have an invocation.

Daugherty:
And if you listen to the invocations, what they do [is] they thank their grandfathers in the four directions. And they thank God, the Almighty, Kshe’mnIto, which means the Great Spirit. They thank Nokmeskignan, the Grandmother Earth. And so what they’re doing, they’re thanking the spirits and they’re thanking the Almighty God.

Ballew:
We always have an arbor and there’s always a circle. They come in from the east, and this is just standard practice [so that] everybody will feel at home. And this is the way our teaching were in this area. Now I understand you go in other parts of the country, they do things a little bit different, but the thing is, when you go to somebody else’s home you follow their procedures unless [there is] something totally that you can’t go along with, and then you just have to drop out of that. But around here, when they come to our party, they do things our way. We probably have representatives from maybe 20 different tribes. They come from Canada. I think last year we had some people from New Jersey. Every so often we get somebody from way out west. Our host drum last year was from Mayetta, Kansas, and we’re very proud of that. The fact is that one of the Potawatomis came back. That was the Little Soldier Singers from Mayetta, Kansas. They’re on the reservation there. And then we also had the Devil’s Lake singers, [who] came down from Crandon, Wisconsin. They’re the Forest Band Potawatomi. It was a real good feeling to have the Potawatomis. It was like a homecoming, and we felt real good about that.

Julie Stauffer, Pokagon Tribal Council:
And I started dancing when I was about 12 years old. And from that point on, we all summer long, after we would get out of school, we would follow the powwows and sing and dance all over the state, into Canada, and Indiana and Wisconsin.

Bob Moody, Pokagon Potawatomi:
I joke about it a lot, but it’s a little bit more than just a joke. It’s a truth that looking at a lot of these birds out here and watching their steps they take. Sometimes how they dance and parade around. Or sometimes where I’ve sat and watched and prayed some nights and learned some of my very own dance steps. I’ve taken them right from what’s come from here.

Ballew:
There’s two different things here. One is a powwow and the other is a drum. Now the drum is a separate group.

Clarence White, Pokagon Potawatomi, “Keeper of the Drum”:
They always call me the “drum keeper,” “Keeper of the Drum.” The drum is religious to us. And all our songs are like prayers. And so whenever we start out to sing well then, our prayers go out to the Great Spirit. See, I made this drum that we have now. And it’s about, I’d say around 17, 18 years old.

Ballew:
And he also named it. He had a dream and the name came to him. And so the name of the drum is “White Thunder.” And so we’re the “White Thunder Singers.”

White:
When I first had the idea of making this drum, I was always thinking of what I was going to use to contain the hides with. So I made it out of an old wine barrel. And a lot of the old drums way back when, that’s what they were made out of, wine barrels and whiskey barrels. And because they were round and so this is what I made them out of, an old wine barrel. I took the center part of that wine barrel apart and then I fixed it so that it would hold the hides.

Ballew:
It is a traditional drum. And that means that it’s made out of wood and hides, animal hides, deer hides in this case. There’s a male hide on top and a female hide on the bottom. And I understand this is because everybody has a male and a female side. And we consider the drum to have a spirit, and we treat it like [an] honored grandfather. As a matter of fact, that’s what we call it, “Grandfather.” And you protect it. We don’t allow people to sit in on the drum [who] had been drinking or doing drugs. We don’t allow small children to come and play with it. Now we’ll bring children in and we’ll teach them, but we try [to] teach them respect for the drum and that it is a sacred drum. We had a naming ceremony for it and we had a feast for it, because that’s part of the tradition. Whenever you have an honored occasion, they usually have a feast. And we gave gifts to everybody that came. That’s another part of our tradition. We use that drum at powwows and certain performances or exhibitions. If we don’t feel right about something—maybe somebody in the area has been drinking, or maybe the circle hasn’t been blessed properly, or there’s just something wrong—what we’ll do is a lot of times we’ll put away that drum and we’ll bring out a regular bass drum and use that for non-sacred functions. But it basically depends on how we feel or how our lead singer and Clarence White feels, because he is the maker and the keeper of the drum, and quite frankly he’s our elder. We receive a lot of teachings, we have a lot of respect for him. So if he says something isn’t right, we do something about it.

White:
When we learn a song, it might be someone that sung from the Sioux tribe or Ojibwa or Potawatomi. And so we try to maintain that particular song. But a lot of our songs are done in Potawatomi and a lot of them are done in Ojibwa, too. Most of the young guys that I sing with, they’re very respectful in that respect. To me this spells that they truly understand the meaning that goes behind the drum.

Video courtesy of WNIT Public Television

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