Drum is heart of powwow

by Sara Goo

It may have been a little chilly to be outdoors all day, but on Saturday Philip St. John and Vincent Charett sat on chairs surrounding their powwow drum, waiting for the powwow to begin.
Although St. John, 17, and Charett, 19, live hours from each other, they have remained friends since they were young because they see each other at powwows across the nation. The University group-sponsored powwow this weekend is the first stop each year for many American Indian dancers, singers and vendors in the spring “powwow season.”
The American Indian Student Association held its 10th annual powwow at East Phillips Park in south Minneapolis. More than 1,000 attendants representing many tribes danced, sang and learned about American Indian tribal culture.
A powwow is a celebration for American Indian tribes. Typically, the events center around the theme of family. Although each tribe has its own traditions, modern powwows are intertribal, and the concept of family extends to allowing people of any ethnicity to attend and learn.
For many, like St. John and Charett, powwows are an opportunity to travel across the country and meet with natives and singers from other tribes.
“We do it all our lives,” Charett said, referring to his tribal people.
The powwow drum, which is much like a bass drum laid on its side, is hit in unison by a small group of people sitting around it. Many say the drum is analogous to a heartbeat because the tempo and the crescendo of the beat provides the life of the powwow dances.
The singing and drum group that appeared at Saturday’s festivities — the Blackbear Singers — comprises a varying group of about 12 teenagers. The group has competed for money prizes at competition powwows, and the members have talked about recording a demo tape. But regardless of fame or money, it’s clear the group is driven by the heartbeat of the drum.
“When everyone feels the power of the drum, you feel that everyone’s on the same line,” said Justin Huenemann, a recent graduate from the University and dancer. “It’s a real rush.”
Huenemann wore traditional men’s dress, which includes a beaded vest and a bussell, or arrangement of feathers on his lower back. Dancers wore one of many styles of regalia, or dress, depending on their personal preference and tribal custom. There are different regalia for men and women.
Regalia are often passed down among generations and often contain materials that have special meaning for the dancer.
Walt Ripplinger, who was dressed in traditional regalia, tied yellow cloth from his mother’s blouse onto his beaded vest.
This powwow has special meaning for Ripplinger, 47, because it was the first powwow at which he danced, back in 1990.
Ripplinger recently discovered that he is of American Indian descent when his mother died. She had kept it secret. When Ripplinger learned his ancestry, he quickly started educating himself about his culture by buying books about his tribe and visiting with other family members.
Explaining his first experience dancing, he said, “I could feel my mother’s presence. It became an awakening, spiritually.”
This year, for the first time, Ripplinger carried the honorary eagle staff during the grand entry, or opening ceremony, of the powwow.
Because it was Mother’s Day, Ripplinger said the powwow had special meaning for him.
“I feel like I’m at one with her here,” he said. “I feel like she’s guiding me.”
Powwows are special family events for Lee Whitefeather also. Whitefeather, 47, brought his grandson Hootie, 5, with him to the powwow. They both wore Ojibwe-style men’s grass regalia. Although Whitefeather made his own clothing, he said powwows are special events to remember deceased family members.
“(Dancing) makes me feel better,” Whitefeather said. “It makes me think about my father.”
The importance of family intertwined with the powwow is why Whitefeather, who is from the Red Lake Reservation, makes an effort to teach his children and grandchildren.
“(Hootie) has seen me dance so he wanted to get into it,” he said.
Participants also enjoyed a traditional American Indian meal of venison stew, frybread and wild rice. More than 1,000 people took part in the feast.
An honorary dance was held for grandmothers and mothers at the powwow. Mothers were given flowers as they danced in a circle around the center of the grassy area.