Documentary Discs: Powwows Dance with Old and New

By James P. Leary

From late spring through early fall outdoor powwows occur nearly every weekend throughout the Upper Midwest. Attracting traditional and fancy dancers in their varied regalia, powwows rely on singers and players encircling a large dance drum. Inspired by the vision of Tailfeather Woman, a Lakota, the “big drum” was offered by Plains to Woodland peoples in the late 19th century as both a token of peace and a means by which Indian peoples might resist mainstream efforts to destroy their culture.

Powwows feature a mixture of old songs used for war, hunting, and seasonal rituals, with newly composed songs that, like the Smokeytown Singers’ “Anishinaabe Nimio,” are contemporary declarations of identity: “We’re the People, let’s dance; we are all proud, let’s all dance.” In addition to songs performed in, for example, Menominee, or Ojibwe, or Ho-Chunk, powwows also feature numerous so-called “straight songs” that, whether old or new, consist entirely of vocables, of phrases like “hey-ya” that may have no lexical meaning but nonetheless signify natural occurrences like wave patterns on a pond or the flight of swans.

The ethnomusicologist Thomas Vennum, Jr., now retired from a distinguished career at the Smithsonian Institution, produced a pair of powwow recordings in the 1990s that offer the genre’s finest sonic introduction. Honor the Earth Powwow: Songs of the Great Lakes Indians (Rykodisc RCD 10199, 1991) was recorded at northern Wisconsin’s Lac Court Oreilles Ojibwe reservation and includes ten representative songs from the LCO Soldier’s Drum, Bad River Singers, Three Fires Society Drum, Little Otter Singers, Smokeytown Singers, and Winnebago Sons. Thanks to collaboration with technically savvy Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, the sound is superb, while Vennum’s notes carefully present each drum group and their songs within the context of the overall powwow event.

American Warriors: Songs for Indian Veterans (Rykodisc RCD 10370, 1997), another Vennum-Hart production, keys on the persistence of American Indian war songs as performed by and for veterans of the United States military. While this CD spans North America, six tracks are nonetheless by Wisconsin Indians, including the Smokeytown Singers’ “Menominee Vietnam Veteran’s Song.”

Myron Pyawasit, who organized the Smokeytown Singers as a teenager in 1973, has gone on to produce a pair of CDs by his group on Escanaba, Michigan’s Noc Bay label: Songs for the People (NBCD 1001, 1997) and The Next Generation (NBCD 1005, 1998). Pyawist’s productions are remarkable for at least three reasons: they include many new compositions in Menominee, they feature both male and female singers in a genre that was once restricted exclusively to the former, and they offer Pyawasit’s recitations of both the lyrics and their English translations right on the recording prior to each performance. Myron Pyawasit’s astute production decisions—accessible to Menominee youth and cultural outsiders alike--combine with his group’s exuberant sound to exemplify the vision and vibrancy at the heart of contemporary powwow music.

Jim Leary, a folklore and Scandinavian studies professor at UW–Madison, is co-director of the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures.

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