There are people everywhere, but the first person I hear is Richard Snake. His laugh is so distinct: loud and powerful. It echoes down the hall, reaching above the distant powwow drums. Prayers and laughter fill the auditorium.

The Great Lakes region is the home of the Three Fires–the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people–and for forty-one years now, more than 1,000 of North America’s greatest singers, dancers, artists, and craftspeople have traveled to Ann Arbor for the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow. This is the largest Native gathering in the Midwest and one of the largest university-related powwows in the country.

All powwows begin with a “grand entry.” Dancers, dressed in stunning regalia, line up by dance style and age. Spectators are asked to rise as the eagle staffs and flags representing nations, families, and communities are brought in. The head veteran, George Martin, leads the way in his traditional regalia.

The emcee announces the dancers in each category as they pass his table, his voice booming loud and clear above the singing and drums. Each drum group, with its own distinct singing and drumming styles, passes around the circle until the center is filled with brilliant colors and jingling sounds in rhythm with the drums.

The drums carry the heartbeat of the Indian nation, as well as the heartbeat of Mother Earth. The drum brings the spirits and nations together and, as with many things in Native American culture, brings balance and rejuvenation to people as they dance, sing, or listen to the heartbeat.

Following the grand entry, the emcee invites an invocation. A prayer song and honoring song for veterans follows, with everyone in the circle, then the contests for best dancers and drums begin.

The categories for dancing are divided into age and gender. Both men and women participate in traditional and fancy dances, but only women perform the jingle dance. The jingle dress, also called a prayer dress, was seen in a dream, as a way to bring healing. Bent snuff cans are sewn onto ribbon and attached close together on the dress to create the sounds of falling rain with each step.

Only men perform the grass dance. Their regalia is comprised of long strands of yarn, ribbon, or fabric attached to a base outfit to represent grass or, in some interpretations, the scalps of enemies! A “roach” headdress with two feathers that twirl as the dancer moves is also worn. The grass dance is often said to reflect the need for balance in life; each movement that is danced on one side must be repeated by the other side.

My favorite dancers are the traditional women. They step so carefully, moving slowly. With intent. With the Idle No More indigenous rights movement spreading across North America, I can see that prayers whispered across generations are coming to life.

The 2014 Powwow is at Skyline High School, Apr. 5 & 6.