“Dancing for community” at the 65th Annual Chicago Powwow

By Katie Rice
Medill Reports

Poised on their toes, the dancers pivot around the room to a thrumming drum beat. Jingling bells accompany their movements as feathers sway from fans, regalia and headdresses in a whirl of color and texture.

The celebration echoes far beyond the gymnasium of DePaul College Prep High School into the balmy October afternoon.

The American Indian Center of Chicago hosted the 65th Annual Chicago Powwow last weekend, an intertribal festival attracting dancers and attendees from across the United States.

One dancer, Jaycob Johnson, said he drove 48 hours from Sacramento, California, to attend the powwow. Johnson, of the Oneida Nation, danced the “grass dance,” a symmetrical, sweeping dance to mimic the movement of the prairie.

This powwow was a competition powwow, said Forrest Bruce, secretary of the board of directors of the American Indian Center of Chicago. Of the two main types of powwows, competition and traditional, competition powwows tend to be stricter and more formal.

For many dancers, the prospect of winning a dance category — and the cash that comes with it — is fun but not the main focus of a powwow. Powwows bring family and friends together, and they provide an opportunity to reconnect through culture and tradition.

Adrian King, of Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) and Oneida heritage, said the Chicago Powwow is a homecoming. He lives on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation of the Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe).

“It’s always been a good connector to friends and family,” he said. “A lot of people have used the powwow to come together and meet new family, like extended family.

“That’s one key importance of a powwow, so we don’t lose that connection of who we are and who we’re related to — because the Indian Reorganization Act [of 1934] already did that.”

Bruce said many in the current American Indian community  migrated to the Chicago area since the 1950s, when the Urban Relocation Program brought an influx of people from reservations to urban areas. Native people have lived here for at least 13,000 years.

“Natives in Chicago just wanted to come together and share their dancing and their traditions, and the powwow is kind of what came from it, and now we do it every year,” he said.

Every dance has a story behind it, Bruce said, and the regalia has significance too. For example, the “jingle dress,” an Ojibwe dress traditionally adorned with rolled snuff can lids, is associated with healing and medicine.

Competition powwows are open to Native and non-Native people. Some dancers, like King, have found that powwows can start discussions about American Indian cultures and traditions with people of all heritages.

“Some people have questions, but they never ask anything, so they’re still going to be at ground zero. They’re not going to move forward into this relationship of understanding each other,” he said.

While King welcomes questions on everything from his regalia to his powwow experiences, he asks that people be respectful.

“My one friend said, ‘We’re not Walt Disney,’” said King. “‘Don’t take my picture just because I’m here walking around enjoying part of my way of life.’”

Photo at top: A dancer concentrates on his movements at the 65th Annual Chicago Powwow last weekend at DePaul College Prep High School. (Photo and video: Katie Rice/MEDILL)