Like a bracelet around the Crisler Arena floor are ten sets of concentric circles: a circular drum, a circle of men playing it in unison with sticks and singing, and a group that gathers around them to listen. Sometimes, says a Native American man who sits down next to me in the stands for a while, someone in the outer circle will record the song — the right thing to do, he says, would be for the person doing the recording to put money on the drum at the end of the song. The musicians sell CDs, and if people are recording for free, they're cutting into the market among the visitors seated in Crisler's upper rows.
Welcome to the annual Ann Arbor PowWow. It's a cultural celebration, a social event, and a competition, on the side a commercial enterprise with vendor booths and food stalls in the Crisler concourse, and all in all an extraordinary happening, both serious and spectacular, that everyone who lives around here should experience at least once. If you ever had the idea that the PowWow was primarily a show put on for curious visitors, you'll be quickly disabused of that notion — it's very much by and for Native Americans, with others allowed to look on from the upper deck.
The complete sequence of events is repeated three times, with variations and special presentations, over the weekend. It begins with the Grand Entry of all the dancers and musicians in full regalia. First in this procession is the head veteran, and honoring Native veterans is absolutely central to the entire event. The whole group joins in a Flag Song and a Veterans Song after all have entered, and with all the singers and drummers going in unison, the sound fills Crisler to the rafters. A group of flag carriers follows the head veteran with the Native American eagle staff and the American and Canadian flags.
After the Grand Entry comes a series of contests, broken down by age (Tiny Tots all the way up to Golden Age) and dance style, of which there are six (Men's Traditional, Men's Grass, Men's Fancy, Women's Traditional, Women's Jingle Dress, and Women's Fancy Shawl). Some dancers approach a judging stand so that the judges can note the numbers pinned to their distinctive handmade regalia (don't call them costumes, the program book advises). Winners are selected and brought out for encores.
A lot of other things are going on as the dancers compete. Along with the competitions, groups of drummers (referred to as "members" of a specific drum) also accompany intertribal dances, sort of general promenades in which the non-Native visitors are also invited to participate (few did when I was there). Individual drum groups have come from as far as Nova Scotia, North Carolina, and Kansas, although the head veteran, MC, head dancers, and head judges are all from Michigan.
The visitor could focus entirely on the musicians. Quite distinct from one another in style, they create intensely powerful sounds fully capable of sweeping aside whatever may be on your mind at the moment. But there are many other things to see and hear. In between the dances are ceremonies honoring elders or memorializing community members. The program book (it's for sale, not given away, but don't miss it) is a fascinating document in itself, with a wealth of detail about the PowWow and its history, as well as information about Native Americans at the U-M and on local efforts to preserve the Anishinaabemowin or Ojibwa language, college admission tips, pages on AIDS and obesity, recipes, coloring activities for kids, and some worthwhile ads, including one last year for "the first ever All Nations skate jam." The action on the Crisler floor ebbs and flows, but there's something happening pretty much all the time. You can come and go at any time, but be sure to structure your visit around a Grand Entry — at noon and 7 p.m. on Saturday and noon on Sunday.
The 2008 Dance for Mother Earth Ann Arbor PowWow convenes in Crisler Arena on Saturday and Sunday, April 5 and 6.
[Review published April 2008]