Pow wow cancellations leave void for Indigenous communities

Emma Henry, 10, of Mt. Pleasant, from left, Llesenia Crisanto, 14, of Peshawbestown and Kyla Henry, 12, of Mt. Pleasant dance July 2, 2019, during the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians Pow Wow at the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City, Mich.

PESHAWBESTOWN, Mich. — For traditional Anishinaabe dancer, Julia Martell, the feeling of stepping inside the pow wow circle is “indescribable.”

“There’s overwhelming pride in doing something that was kept from the community for so long,” said Martell, adding that it’s not just a feeling, but an element of connection with community and culture through dance and song.

Martell, a 26-year-old tribal citizen of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said she grew up on the “Pow-wow trail,” first attending when she was only 8 days old. She said she has been dancing “since I could literally walk.”

She was blessed with dancing fancy-shawl, then cycled between that and traditional dancing before she was given a dream to dance jingle dress.

“It’s so prevalent in my life,” she said adding that dancing for her community is an integral part of who she is.

It’s a part of her life that has been interrupted because of restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Martell and other Anishinaabek in Michigan have not been able to gather for pow wows as normal, according to the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

Martell said it’s hard not to acknowledge the difficulty of not being able to participate in a staple of her upbringing for more than a year.

“I really miss those connections, that joy and togetherness that pow wows bring for me,” she said.

The modern celebration of pow wows began in the early 20th century, when it still was illegal for Indigenous people to practice their culture, spirituality, including song and dance. It wasn’t until The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 that protects the rights of Indigenous people to exercise traditional religions that pow wow began to gain traction in the communities. Since then, tribal nations across the nation and Michigan have “pow wow season” that ranges mostly in the warmer months.

In a recent public announcement, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians canceled its annual pow wow, which would have taken place in the third weekend in August.

“The COVID-19 virus first attacked our Indigenous elders, it has now turned its focus toward our children ages zero-11. There are no vaccines available to protect this stage of life from the COVID-19 virus. Our children remain vulnerable and it is our responsibility to protect our next generation. Our children’s health and safety is our priority, we make this decision respectfully for them. Miigwech,” the statement said.

Other tribal nations like the Little River Band of Odawa Indians also decided to cancel their annual pow wows this year, while some tribes like Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians delayed until later in the year. Keweenaw Bay Indian Community is planning its 43rd Annual “Maawanj’iding Pow Wow” from July 23-25 despite the pandemic.

The pow wow committee for GTB could not be reached for comment.

Martell said she is disappointed about the cancellation, because of other tribes’ ability to take precautions for the pandemic, but she added that she understands the need “to protect our young ones.”

Martell she plans to attend other tribal pow wows, like KBIC’s pow wow in Baraga, to dance and connect with her communities again.

“It’s really good medicine and I miss those immense emotions you have being among it,” she said.


Sierra Clark’s reporting is made possible by a partnership between the Traverse City Record-Eagle and Report for America.