Musician Jason Wesaw says the Pokagon band of the Potawatomi has gathered around this time of year for generations to celebrate the harvest and all that the land provides to help them maintain their way of life. And for 27 years, the Pokagon have held the Kee Boon Mein Kaa Pow Wow, which takes place this weekend in Dowagiac.
“Kee Boon Mein Kaa literally means ‘I quit picking huckleberries,” Wesaw says.
Pokagon Cultural Associate Andy Jackson says huckleberries and the pow wow itself hold great significance to Pokagon families. Jackson recalls going to look at the old huckleberry patch with her grandfather:
“And he would say, 'You know we would walk as a family.' They would all get together and they would be together. And they’d go meet this other family and they’d walk through the field to find that huckleberry marsh. And then they’d pick that and they’d all come back. And then the next day they’d walk a little farther and then go to another one. So it was all—they did it as family groups," Wesaw says. "And that’s how they supported their families. Before there was a migrant population in Southwest Michigan, native people were doing a lot of that kind of work.”
There will be native arts, crafts, and food for sale at the pow wow in Dowagiac. But the main events are the music and dance competitions. There will be traditional and contemporary dances, as well as dances that originate in the Great Lakes Region. Wesaw says the dances and songs are, in part, about respect, even respecting your own instruments. He was taught by his elders to treat his drum as gently as he would his grandmother.
“I think the traditional dances talk about the story of, for men, about the first man being lowered to the Earth and his very first footsteps on the Earth,” says Wesaw. “And you’ll see in both the men and women in the traditional style of dancing, you’ll really notice how no matter what the rest of their body is doing, their footwork on the earth comes down really gently and like in a respectful way. So it’s actually telling a story of how we’re supposed to walk on this Earth in a gentle and respectful way.”
Wesaw says traditional dance regalia has colorful floral designs that represent native plants. The regalia for contemporary dances are even more colorful and very elaborate. “Like real flashy, like they’re actually dancing to try and get the crowd and the judges into it,” Wesaw says. “And that’s part of how, you know, the competition style of dancing goes.”
“These dances do have purpose,” says jingle dress dancer Rhonda Purcell. Jingle dress dancers usually do healing dances.
“As for my style of dance, there’s a time when that dance and that dress is very very ceremonial and very traditional and very powerful," Purcell says. "But in a setting like this where it’s a community event and it’s in the open and anybody can view it or just be there to witness it, it’s a different kind of setting and there’s a different purpose for that.”
The same idea goes for the music. Purcell says Native American songs have a unique style where the lyrics play a big role.
“Even though we don’t have high pitches or we don’t increase our voice level when we’re excited or upset, you know, our language says a lot in one word,” Purcell says. “It doesn’t just talk about a bird. It talks about how that bird looks, how that bird flies. So when these songs are sang and you understand the language, you’re getting so much more the song than simple English."
Purcell says there was a time when it was illegal for the Pokagons to celebrate their culture.
“They would have to cut holes in their floor so they could go underground and speak their language and do their ceremonies and dance,” says Purcell. “You know, that’s a sad story in itself, but now we’re in a time where we’re inviting people in the community to come and be with us while we celebrate this happy time. Come and see who we are, and this is our identity. Contrary to what you’ve heard before, come see us for yourself. Come celebrate with us. You know we’re all in this together, we’re all walking the same Mother Earth. We’re all trying to lives for the most part, so let’s just do it together.”
The Kee Boon Mein Kaa Pow Wow will take place Saturday and Sunday at Rodgers Lake in Dowagiac, Michigan.