Asked to list their hometown's world-class attractions, most Ann Arborites could easily rattle off several, but very few would name one of Ann Arbor's most remarkable annual events: the U-M Powwow.
Every March (March 29-31 this year), over 1,000 Native American singers, dancers, and artisans turn Crisler Arena into a celebration of native culture. For two and a half days, dancers shuffle, stomp, and whirl across the Crisler floor. Wearing feathered and beribboned regalia, they compete for prize money and pride. A dozen drum groups, recruited from across North America, pound enormous drums and sing magnificent, uncanny songs. And in the hallway of the arena's outer ring, craftspeople sell products ranging from Indian kitsch (a big seller last year was a T-shirt that read "FBI: Full-Blooded Indian") to highly accomplished sculptures and beadwork.
Many participants are quasi-professional. They travel in vans from powwow to powwow, making friends along the way and earning enough in prize money to sustain their habit. And although powwows take place all over the continent — some composed of just a few people, others huge — the U-M Powwow is among the best. It's big and it's festive, and the organizers consistently bring in the best native musicians available, who in turn draw the best dancers.
For nonnative spectators, the joy of attending the powwow is twofold. First, there's the pageantry. Each of the four separate sessions kicks off with a Grand Entry, an enormous spectacle, led by native veterans bearing flags, in which all the participants march into the arena. They're followed by the dancers, ranging in age from four to ninety and dancing to the insistent pounding of the drum groups: women in shimmering Jingle Dresses or colorful shawls, men in buckskin and feathers or wearing phosphorescent Fancy Feather regalia.
The second joy of the powwow is simply hanging out and people-watching. With so many participants, there is no "backstage." Entire families deck themselves out for dances right up in the audience's seats. They duct-tape leggings to their calves and braid ribbons into their hair. A man in black and yellow face paint, an enormous feather bustle, and headphones sings along with his rap music. The emcee cracks terrible jokes over the PA system.
This is a glimpse of native culture — vibrant, contemporary, straddling the chasm between tradition and change — that never appears in the mainstream media. When first-time spectators arrive, they often walk around gingerly, afraid of violating some taboo or giving offense. But sooner or later they realize they can relax. They find a seat among the suitcases and blankets and feathers, they gape for a while, and pretty soon you can see them nodding along with the steady drum beat, enjoying the show.