Art Brandt’s belly laugh peals through the first-floor hallway of the Michigan Union as he describes a dance that linked hundreds of people at the 2004 Dance for Mother Earth powwow at Crisler Arena: “It started on the floor, wound through the stands, went out into the vending circle, then came back down through the stands, and finally back to the floor. When it was all over everyone just broke into laughter.” Brandt throws his arthritic hands up in delight as he recalls the scene.
Brandt, who is of Mohawk heritage, has been part of the Dance for Mother Earth since it began forty years ago. “The powwow’s intention in 1972 was primarily to break the stereotype of the Television Indian,” the retiree recalls. The Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s glorified cowboys and settlers while reducing the people they dispossessed to, in the words of one powwow participant, “fools and savages.”
At the time, the militant American Indian Movement was taking cues from the Black Panthers. The powwows that sprang up in Ann Arbor and other cities, though, took an educational route. Rejecting a century of forced assimilation, participants set out to revive long-suppressed spiritual practices, including drumming, dancing, and singing.
At first, Brandt remembers, “we weren’t allowed to practice our religious ceremonies at the powwow.” Until the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, smudging (burning herbs), exchanging gifts of tobacco, and even the important Eagle Dance all could be prosecuted under various laws–just possessing an eagle feather risked a $25,000 fine. Today, these rites are seen in every powwow, and the convocation prayer is said in a tribal language.
Ann Arbor embraced the Dance for Mother Earth. It started on the street, then, as it grew, moved to larger locales, including Huron High, the old Cleary College on Washtenaw, the Washtenaw Farm Council grounds, and the U-M Sports Coliseum. Eventually, “we moved to the Crisler because the powwow was very popular, and each venue just wasn’t big enough,” recalls Dorothy Goeman, a former Native American representative in the U-M Minority Student Services office. “Crisler met our needs.” Goeman says the powwow’s goal has always been “to educate on Native American life both past and present.”
I have no Indian heritage myself, but my half sister is Tennessee Cherokee. In 1992, our mother took us to the first Crisler powwow, where we wandered the arena admiring the craftsmanship of the silver jewelry, ivory carvings, and blankets. When the grand entry began, and the dancers emerged from the tunnel, we all fell silent as the floor filled with a rainbow of colorful regalia, and the walls vibrated with the instruments and songs.
I first saw my future boyfriend John that day, two years before we formally met. John–he asked me not to use his last name–was a drummer with Blue Lake Drum, named for a spiritually important lake in New Mexico. (At a powwow, a “drum” is the entire team of percussionists and singers who perform with an instrument.) Blue Lake was a frequent winner in the drum contests, and with good reason–not only were they phenomenal players, but they had voices that carried up to the high seats, all monosyllabic tones.
During the ten years John and I were together, it was always a moment of pride to be in the audience and listen to him play. I sometimes wished that I had known him when he was young and did the Mens Fancy Dance, but I did get the pleasure of watching his nephews do the Grass Dance–imagine fields of long grass being blown by fall breezes, swaying and rustling as the warriors slip through it– when it was another drum’s turn to fill the arena with rhythmic thunder.
During more than fifteen years at Crisler, the Dance for Mother Earth grew to be the third-largest competition powwow in the country. Art Brandt says that it kicked off the season for many performers who follow the circuit from one event to the next. Some years the arena would be so packed that the air grew stifling, even though it was end-of-winter cold outside.
The U-M has supported the powwow financially since the early 1980s. By the mid-2000s, though, the relationship between the university and the U-M Native American Student Association (NASA) was strained over several issues, including tribal demands for repatriation of Native American remains from U-M museums. At the 2008 powwow, more than 1,000 seats were roped off as a symbolic protest. The following year, NASA moved the powwow to Saline Middle School.
Media coverage at the time attributed the move to the repatriation conflict. However, Forrest Cox, a member of NASA’s powwow committee, says the dispute “played a very small part” in the decision. The main reason for the move, Cox says, is that the students wanted to have more control over the event.
“Saline Middle School was a great site,” Cox says. But both participants and spectators had trouble finding it, and Cox says attendance shrank during the powwow’s three years there. Equally troubling was the location’s impact on both present and prospective Native American students. “There has been a decrease in Native student recruits to the university,” says Cox–a loss that “seems to be directly connected to the move so far away from campus.” And the repatriation issue has been largely resolved by new federal rules that allow tribes to claim all remains found in areas they traditionally inhabited. The university is now working to return all remains requested by tribes in Michigan and other states.
Moving to Saline “seemed the best thing to do at the time,” Cox says, but times have changed. This year’s powwow will be back in Ann Arbor, though not at Crisler Arena: it will be held on March 17 and 18 at Pioneer High School (see Events). Cox calls it a “step toward coming back to campus,” and says NASA is “opening dialogues” with university administrators to make that happen.
Art Brandt credits NASA with working through the issues that led to the split. “This was a long process on their part, and they understand how important it is,” he says. “Bringing the powwow back to campus might inspire the new Native students to get involved–very few are, and some don’t even know the university has a powwow.”
Brandt says that he would love to see the Dance for Mother Earth celebrate its fiftieth anniversary “with a bang, with fireworks and all, like the Fourth of July.” But that’s still ten years away. This year, everyone is glad just to have the powwow back in Ann Arbor.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the March 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. The dance “John” performed as a young man has been corrected, a paragraph break has been moved, and the dates of this year’s powwow have been corrected.