Dancers at the 39th Annual UWM Autumn Pow Wow circled the floor amidst a stunning aural tapestry of drumming and singing. With their regalia generously adorned with metal ornaments, dancers clanged and shucked to the their individual rhythms. At times one could see four generations dancing together, grandparents in the same circle where young children barely older than toddlers danced.
“I was born Indian, I don’t have to put on an outfit to be Indian,” said James Flores, a senior at UWM who danced at the Pow Wow while wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap. “I wanted to stop by the Pow Wow for just a little bit because I have a lot of homework. But now that I’m having so much fun I might go home and get on my full regalia. It would be more appropriate if I did,” said Flores.
At Pow Wows, male outfits tend to be the most eye-catching with elaborate roaches (headdresses) and bustles, dangling streamers, brightly colored sashes with intricately beaded designs throughout. One man sported an exquisitely painted turtle shell shield on his left forearm. Each outfit is unique according to the individual, their family, their tribe, where they traveled from and their ancestors.
Although the event took place in the Union Ballroom, one could find participants throughout the union getting their outfits ready, preparing for dances, or taking a quiet moment away from the excitement.
The drum is the beating central heart of any Pow Wow. The Host Drum of this Pow Wow was The Milwaukee Bucks, which is a family drum passed down through the generations by a Ho-Chunk family, and its naming predates the Milwaukee basketball team.
But another drum also resides at UWM year-round. Afternoons in Bolton Hall, anyone walking by can hear and experience students and faculty in the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education (EQI), practicing and learning language through music.
“We’re practicing Ojibwe, of the Anishibaabemowin family of languages,” said Maurina Paradise, finance & operations manager at EQI. “This language is spoken by the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Odawa (Ottawa) tribes, known together as the Three Fires Confederacy,” said Paradise.
Nathon Breu is the student caretaker of the drum at EQI. “This drum is a live spiritual being in our culture. I try to take care of it in the traditional way so it’s not disrespected and put in a closet collecting dust. It enjoys being sung, and it wants the people to unite. That’s what the purpose [of this drum] is, to unite people. Not just the Native people. All people,” said Breu.
The drum housed in EQI was built in the 1970’s, presumably of deer hide for the drum head, and likely from a hollowed out log. The shell of the drum is covered in a woven fabric, so no one currently knows exactly what methods of construction lie beneath. Participants of the EQI language sessions are still attempting to document the instrument’s origin.
The 1970’s were a particularly active time for the American Indian Movement (AIM). Many members of the younger generation of American Indians were pushing back against the fact that many of their elders had been forced to assimilate into the broader American culture. “A lot of these people were put into boarding schools and told not to speak their language,” said Breu.
Native Americans throughout the country had been forced to attend assimilation schools, where they were barred from looking, speaking, or acting like Indians. “Kill the Indian to save the man,” was a phrase commonly used to describe this concept by Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
“There was a lot of shame in speaking your language. [by the 1970’s] Our languages were looking at becoming extinct, a zombie language. There was a great push for the revitalization of the language,” said Breu.
In 1971, members of AIM occupied a closed Coast Guard station on the Milwaukee lakefront, which eventually became the first Indian Community School in Milwaukee (ICS). ICS has continued to evolve, and in 2007 built a 160,000 sq. foot structure in Franklin, where it is surrounded by 200 acres of forests, wetlands, and prairies.
Efforts that began in the 1970’s of reclaiming culture are bearing plentiful fruits at UMW, as the Pow Wow was attended by many Native cultures. All of the Wisconsin tribes were represented at the Pow Wow, which was additionally attended by members of the Odawa (Ottawa) of Michigan, Lumbee of North Carolina, Winnebago of Nebraska, and Apache of Arizona. The event was put together by the American Indian Student Association.
Pow Wows are generally open for the greater public to attend, and open for anyone to participate during most dances. “In our original teachings of the circle of life, and the four races of man, you can’t take out any one of those races because then your circle is incomplete. That’s why everyone is welcome to these ceremonies and this drum. Life ceases to exist if people are excluded from it,” Breu said.