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FDL Head Start book gives a kids-eye view of powwow tradition

Leah Savage (left) and Barbara Forcier of the Fond du Lac Head Start program go over the photos used in compiling the program's latest cultural book,"Niimiwin - Everyone Dance." The book has been nominated for a Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Wendy Johnson/

When Fond du Lac Head Start needed a name for the program's latest cultural book on powwows, the choice was obvious.

"'Niimiwin' - the Ojibwe word for 'everyone dance' - was perfect for it," said author and Head Start teacher Leah Savage.

Savage, Head Start Literacy Coordinator Barb Forcier and design specialists Nikki Willgohs and Jill Pertler worked together on the book project, the third produced by the Fond du Lac Head Start program.

Savage explained that powows are a part of the Ojibwe tradition that children and families share together.

"My first early memory of powwows was at a Mille Lacs powwow when I was about 4 or 5," she related. "I remember holding my father's hand and watching all the dancers. He saw me trying to dance and bounce around and told me, 'If you want to learn how to dance, you have to watch other people's feet and copy what they're doing.' That's what I tell kids to this day when we have powwow practice in our classrooms."

The first two books in the series of locally produced cultural books for children, "Our Journey" and "Boozhoo," were a collaboration between the Fond du Lac Reservation, the University of Minnesota Duluth, the Cloquet Educational Foundation and the Minnesota Department of Education and funded through grants to promote diversity and understanding. This book, however, was funded primarily through the proceeds from the previous two, both of which are now in their second printing.

"It had been a while since the two previous books," said Savage, "and in 2007 we figured it would be a good idea to do another. We had the powwow season coming up, as well as regalia classes and wonderful kids, and so we decided to do a book on powwows."

Though Savage, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Reservation where she grew up, had never written a book before, she said she has many stories written on her soul.

Ever since she was a little girl, she said, she was always making up her own books about the things in her daily life - wild ricing, the sugar bush, gardening and powwows - all of the seasonal, cultural things her family did.

"Being an Ojibwe child, my role was to observe, and I discovered that's how you learn a lot of things," she said.

"All of those traditions come down through the generations," added Forcier. "It's just a way of life."

One of those valued traditions was the powwow, which Savage experienced from the time she was very young.

"My first outfit was at the age of 4 or 5," she reminisced. "My mom bought me a beautiful little blue T-shirt with four shawl dancers on the front. My first authentic outfit was a basic little ribbon dress with a ribbon shawl. My mom has made all of my outfits, and I loved powwow dancing from the time I was young."

Fond du Lac Head Start's recently released story, "Niimiwin," details the story of how two Fond du Lac children learn how to get ready for a powwow - much the same as Savage learned as a youngster and is now teaching her own daughter, Delilah, who appears in the book along with Shaydon Thompson, another Head Start student.

The book is also interspersed with words from the Ojibwe language and it has, in fact, been listed under the Library of Congress as a language book.

Savage, herself, studied the Ojibwe language throughout high school, but admitted she learned much of what she knows from Dan Jones during her college experience at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College. She later graduated with a bachelor's degree in elementary education from the University of Minnesota Duluth with a minor in the Ojibwe language and became the cultural interpreter at Fond du Lac Head Start.

After the program made the decision to publish a book about powwows, designers Willgohs and Pertler were charged with taking photos of every stage of the process during that summer and fall, from planning and sewing the regalia to dancing, the traditional offerings and the feast.

"We had every phase recorded," said Forcier, "so we could just start at the beginning and go through the whole process and pick out the pictures. Then Leah put the words to it."

The first part of the process of getting ready for the powwow, explained Savage, was a series of regalia classes taught by instructor Sarah Howes.

While Savage decided to make a jingle dress for her daughter, Delilah, the little boy named Shaydon, also featured in the book, chose a grass dance outfit, the type worn by the male grass dancers who go out in the meadow and get the ceremonial grounds ready for the ceremony. Some use ribbon and some use yarn for the fringes, which imitates the motion of the grass.

The book starts out by stressing the importance of the drum at powwows.

"The drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth, and only males can sing on it," explained Savage. "Females are more than welcome to stand behind the males and sing with their beautiful, high-pitched voices, but the reason women don't touch the ceremonial and powwow drums is because they are the ones who give life, and when they're on their menstrual cycle, they're considered very powerful."

She went on to explain that babies and children in the powwow arena are not supposed to be carried during the dance, either.

"That would be like offering your child to the Great Spirit," Savage said. "Babies can be held around the drum, however, because if those babies hear the drumbeat when they're young, they're never going to forget it."

At the start of the powwow, Savage said, first comes the grand entry where everybody stands to honor the Great Spirit, the elders, the dancers and everyone who is putting on the powwow. Those who come in first are the veterans in the color guard, carrying the ceremonial eagle staff and the flags. Then the dancers proceed from elders to small children, and the songs that are sung during the Grand Entry always start out with songs honoring the war veterans and the Creator.

During the course of the powwow, there are various songs being sung, including inter-tribal songs which are more like social songs as well as certain songs that have a purpose such as the traveling song at the end of the powwow which is played for the safety of the people who are traveling from far away as well for safe travels throughout their lives. There is always a song to honor the little children as well.

"They're important to us," said Savage. "What we teach them culturally is going to be passed on from generation to generation."

Further, she explained that a powwow is not only ceremonial and traditional, but also an opportunity for people to get together and socialize, and everyone who would like to dance is invited to take part.

"I remember that at one of the first powwows I ever attended," recalled Forcier, "whoever was at the microphone said, 'If you're here, you're a participant.'"

Savage said another important thing during the powwow is the feast, which is usually held toward the end.

"In our culture, elders are highly honored and served their food first at the feast," said Savage. "Traditional foods are served such as fry bread, potatoes, venison, fish and berries."

The Fond du Lac Reservation hosts some five to eight powwows throughout the summer, though many also choose to go on the "powwow trail" as often as they can, visiting other towns and reservations.

"Niimiwin" goes on to describe the four sacred herbs used at powwows as well as at other ceremonial events, including tobacco, cedar, sweet grass and sage.

The "Niimiwin" book was released just before Christmas 2009 with a first printing of 3,000 copies and it will soon join the reservation's other two books in being marketed through a national Native American catalog called Oyate, which has sold them throughout the country as well as around the world.

"Being a retired librarian," said Forcier, "I used to look for books like this for the clientele in the Duluth schools, and they simply didn't exist."

Each student in the Fond du Lac Head Start program received one of the books for Christmas, and they have been well received by the families as well.

"One thing about this book - and it's very intentional - is the fact that although it's colorful and geared for very young children, there's a whole other level to it that people can learn from," said Forcier.

"Niimiwin" was recently nominated for a Northeastern Minnesota Book Award, and Savage, Forcier, Willgohs and Pertler will attend a special ceremony in May at the University of Minnesota Duluth to find out if their publication is among the winners.

In the meantime, the Head Start program is proud to pass along one segment of the native culture in a way that both children and adults can relate to.

"That's what I want to be able to give to my daughter," Savage summed up, "- the understanding of our culture and all those great memories. That's definitely one of my goals as a mother, to try to give her all of the experiences my parents gave me from the time I was little."