DOWAGIAC — Dancers in fancy regalia, artisans showing off their work and even people cooking indigenous foods.
This area’s most ancient culture was on full display Saturday at the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi’s annual Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa Pow Wow.
The 34th annual Labor Day weekend pow wow continues today with a full day of dancing, crafts and native foods available for people to enjoy. The pow wow is taking place at the Pokagon Band’s Rodgers Lake Campground on the Sink Road Campus, south of Dowagiac. Gates open at 10 a.m. and the Grand Entry of dancers is set for noon.
The Kee-Boon-Mein-Kaa Pow Wow celebrates the end of the huckleberry harvest and is one of two pow wows the band holds every year on their Sink Road property. Their Memorial Day weekend pow wow is a traditional pow wow, while this one is a contest with dancers coming from a wider area and competing for prizes.
While the dancers and drums in the pow wow arena are the focal point of much of the activity this weekend, visitors also have the chance to learn more about other parts of Native American culture in booths around the campground.
Gerald Wesaw of Bangor comes every year to display his handmade cedar boxes and hand drums. His family is one of the four original Pokagon families along with the Topash, Winchester and Williams families. His son, Matt, is the band’s tribal chairman.
“This is our home pow wow,” he said. “I was born and raised in Hartford and live in Bangor now. I started making drums and cedar boxes after I retired in 1994. I just like to be here every year.”
As he tells visitors to his family’s tent a short distance away from the dancing, the boxes and drums take time to prepare for and make. He estimated it can take four to five hours to actually make a box or a drum. The boxes come in a variety of sizes including a small rectangular one that holds a box of matches for tribal firekeepers.
His daughter, Lois Wesaw, comes to the pow wow every year and started making bead jewelry to sell at the pow wow three years ago.
“My dad knew I liked to cross stitch and wanted me to do the beadwork,” she said. “It’s a lost art.”
Hal Wiggins and his daughter, Cindy Coy, have their artwork on display in a nearby tent. They both are members of the Pokagon Band and live in the Traverse City area. They come to the pow wow every year to visit with old friends, meet new people and sell their wares.
Wiggins, now 85, said he’s been making traditional crafts including knives, necklaces, rattles, pouches and drums since he was 14 and in the Boy Scouts. “Now, I come mainly to just meet the people,” he said. “I meet people from all over including Kansas and Oklahoma. People always come back to see what I have that’s new.”
Both he and his daughter like to take old items and repurpose them. For example, he turned an antique stirrup into a dreamcatcher.
For her part, Coy likes to go to garage and yard sales and pick up old jewelry she can turn into something new. She also sells natural handmade soaps.
“I used to come with my dad and sit with him and then I started making jewelry myself,” she said. “I use a variety of materials including jasper, turquoise, deer antlers and copper. I also take the scraps of leather from my father’s work as well as electrical wire to make bracelets. I like to take old items and make them into native artwork.”
Members of the Pigeon family come every year from Hopkins in Allegan County to demonstrate how to make black ash baskets.
“We come every year and share what we know,” John Pigeon said. “I’ve been doing it all my life and learned from my parents who learned from their parents and so on back through the generations.”
Pigeon expects to make baskets this weekend from trees he and others cut down on Friday. From there, he and his son, also named John, strip off the bark and then pound on the logs to separate out the strips they use to make the baskets.