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Minnesota’s First Bemijigamaag Powwow Unites City, State and Tribes

The Bemijigamaag Powwow brought tribal nations, city and state leaders, and newcomers to its event.

At least 3,000 people came to the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minnesota, for the first Bemijigamaag Powwow on April 4. A pow wow typically brings American Indians together, but this first-of-its-kind event encouraged non-Indians to come and learn about this staple of Indian country.

Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said the pow wow had been in the making for eight years, and had its origins in a survey commissioned by Shared Vision. The survey said both Indians and non-Indians wanted to get to know people of other cultures better. "The problem is we don't know how to talk, how to start the conversation," said Albrecht, "and it is things like this that bring people together that allow that conversation to begin." And when Gov. Mark Dayton accepted an invitation to attend, Albrecht said, “We are honored to host the governor at this exciting community event, Bemidji is at the center of three tribal nations, and is the perfect place for the governor and our communities to come together to celebrate Ojibwe culture and heritage.“

This first-time event featured a flag and gift exchange between Albrecht and tribal leaders, Red Lake Chairman Darrell G. Seki, Sr., Leech Lake Chairwoman, Carri Jones, and White Earth Chairwoman Erma Vizenor.

Grand Entry: Pageantry Full of Symbolism

Pow wow volunteers, drummers and dancers started arriving at the Center's main entry at 10:00 a.m. when dancer registration began. Upon arrival at the huge parking lot overlooking the pow wow, and the city’s namesake Lake Bemidji, guests noted that the parking lot signs were printed in both Ojibwe and English, Migizi/Eagle, Makwa/Bear, and Maang/Loon; and so were the restrooms, Ikwewag/Women and Ininiwag/Men.

Around 12:30 p.m., dancers slowly gathered together at the back of the Center to prepare for grand entry. Meanwhile the chairs from the three reservations: Darrell G. Seki, Sr., of Red Lake, Carri Jones of Leech Lake, and Irma Vizenor of White Earth, met privately with Gov. Dayton in a back corner of the building. When his meeting with tribal chairs finished, Gov. Dayton, escorted by Mayor Albrecht and arena director Earl Fairbanks, ascended the stage.

Tribal chairs also took their place at the head of the coming grand entry. A tribal honor guard accompanied each tribal leader from each reservation that would carry each Nation's flag. Behind the tribal chairs were numerous eagle staffs. Then came local dignitaries, and Albrecht joined the group in a moment of solidarity of four governmental bodies. Next in line were honor guards, followed by royalty from each tribe. Finally dancers men, women, boys, girls, and tiny tots entered as is customary. Elders had prime seating for the colorful, banner- filled grand entry on either side of the stage.

Darrell Kingbird of Red Lake gave the invocation in his native tongue, Ojibwemowin. All prayers were done outside of the public so that all events including Kingbird could be photographed to eliminate any misunderstandings by newcomers.

Gov. Dayton offered brief remarks that encouraged togetherness. “We are all Americans, all Minnesotans, and we are all one people,” he said. He urged Minnesotans to continue working together to make sure “our children and our grandchildren” are unified even further.

Gift Exchange

The highlight of the pow wow was the symbolism of the gift and flag exchange. Each tribal chair entered carrying their Nation's flag that would be part of a small ceremony. These flags were later posted permanently at the entrance to the convention center.

When the grand entry ended, the three tribal chairs ascended the stage again to join Dayton and Albrecht. “I hope the friendships we make here today will grow beyond this event and our community will continue on a path of inclusiveness and respect for one another,” said Albrecht. Each tribal chairperson presented the mayor with a 4 by 6 tribal flag. In return, Albrecht presented blankets and tobacco to the tribal leaders symbolizing friendship and respect.

Jones said the pow wow was a step in the right direction for tribal relations. "We look forward to building on the friendship for the betterment of all communities." And Vizenor said the pow wow strengthened the bond between her band and the city of Bemidji. “Change in the world involves relationships. We are building those relationships every day,” she said.

After thanking Albrecht and the organizers of the event, Seki gave a short passionate speech expressing hope that the pow wow would lead to healing and understanding between cultures. He concluded with a loud "howa!"

All agreed that they would continue the search for opportunities for their respective communities to get to know each other. The event demonstrated that more people care than one might have imagined, a recognition that both Indians and non-Indians have much in common yet much to learn about each other.

After the speeches, Young Kingbird sang a Flag Song, then a veteran’s song. Kingbird encouraged veterans of all colors to dance. Some newcomers took to the floor as well. And 20 drums then took their turn for songs, Crow Hop, spot dances and a "Jingle Dress Snagging Earrings Special."

A Communal Feast

In the ballroom, a communal feast of 2000 Red Lake walleye filets, Leech Lake wild rice, and Lueken's vegetables and sheet cake for dessert was served starting at 5 p.m. Non-profit vendors dotted the perimeter of the room. Public servants, members of Bemidji City Council, Beltrami County Board, state legislators and other dignitaries within the region served dinner. Tables were set up in lake view rooms for eating. A Hand Drum special was held concurrently out in the arena.

“It’s really the epitome of what this building was built for and within our unique location here to represent and bring everyone’s cultures together so we can celebrate,” said Cyrus Pansch, director of sales and marketing at the Sanford Center.

The second grand entry was held at 7 p.m., followed by category dancing. Toward the end of the evening, pow wow organizers and volunteers were introduced and were shown appreciation by an Honor Song. A traveling song followed with new friends made and a tradition begun.
Darryl Northbird, the Bemijigamaag Powwow organizer said, "The pow wow united three tribal Nations, the city and the state, unbelievable!”