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Not just a dance: Community powwow in Brainerd a chance to share culture, understanding

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Wiidookodaadiwag "We Are Helping One Another" Powwow in Brainerd
Dancers participate in the Wiidookodaadiwag "We Are Helping One Another" Powwow Thursday at Central Lakes College in Brainerd, Minn.
Kelly Humphrey | Brainerd Dispatch

The powwow is a colorful celebration of Native American history and culture, where traditional music, dance and clothing are on full display.

An annual powwow held in Brainerd on Thursday aims to share those traditions with the broader community — and foster understanding between cultures.

This is the third year the community powwow has been held at Central Lakes College in Brainerd. In Ojibwe, the event's name, Wiidookodaadiwag, means "We are helping one another."

Mary Sam, the college's dean of students, said the powwow tradition was resurrected three years ago after a long hiatus.

The event draws several hundred people, including members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and other tribes around Minnesota. Many in the audience were not Native American, but came to learn about native culture — and even dance, if they wanted to.

Sam said the powwow is a chance for the Native American community to celebrate together and teach their culture to their children.

Wiidookodaadiwag “We Are Helping One Another” Powwow in Brainerd
An honor guard from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe presents the flags in the Wiidookodaadiwag "We Are Helping One Another" Powwow.
Kelly Humphrey | Brainerd Dispatch

"It's also an opportunity for the local community that doesn't normally have an opportunity to learn anything about native people to come and feel safe enough to ask questions and learn and be educated," she said.

As drummers beat a rhythm on huge drums in the middle of the gym, dancers wearing colorful dresses and shawls, while a few men wore feathered headdresses.

A brochure handed out to the audience explained the significance of the drum, or dewe'igan in Ojibwe, which "brings the heartbeat of the Earth to the powwow for all to hear and feel."

It also explained the different dances and shared some tips on powwow etiquette, such as be respectful and avoid pointing at anyone or touching the drums.

In the hallway outside the gym, people could try playing traditional games. They could learn about the jingle dress worn by women and girls, covered with bells that rattle when they dance. In Ojibwe culture, the jingle dress dance represents healing.

Hara Charlier, president of Central Lakes College, said the powwow fits with CLC's goal of providing an inclusive campus where everyone is welcome and feels comfortable.

Wiidookodaadiwag “We Are Helping One Another” Powwow in Brainerd
Dancers participate in the Wiidookodaadiwag "We Are Helping One Another" Powwow.
Kelly Humphrey | Brainerd Dispatch

"This is about supporting native students and encouraging non-native people to really understand — and work to understand — native culture and history," Charlier said.

Last year, the Brainerd public school district became a sponsor of the powwow.  Superintendent Laine Larson said the district is working to increase awareness of Native American history and culture in the classroom and events like the powwow.

"It's good for me and it's good for all of us who are from different cultures to understand one another," Larson said. "It's just really a beautiful experience."

Charles Black Lance is the college's director of outreach programs for disadvantaged students known as TRIO and a Brainerd school board member, who's also Lakota. He said many people don't understand that the powwow is a spiritual gathering and a way of preserving Native American culture.

"I think when they hear powwow, they just think of a dance, which it is," Black Lance said. "But there's a pretty significant aspect as to why they do this and why it's important that we as American Indian people continue to do this."