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Red Cliff powwow celebrates 40 years of community

Josh Zunker of the Ho-Chunk Nation dances during the Red Cliff powwow on Sunday. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Noah Connors (left) uses a rod to show where he believes a marked ball bearing is hided during the championship round of the moccasin game competition at the Red Cliff powwow on Sunday. The team of Jerry Ojibway (from left, seated near the blanket) Mike Montano Jr. and Damon Panek won the event. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Charlotte Andrews-DePerry, 7, of Red Cliff, performs a hoop dance during the annual Red Cliff powwow Sunday. She is one of a number of students learning the dance. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 3

RED CLIFF — "Who doesn't have a hoop yet?" Gretchen Morris asked a group of a dozen children ages 4 to 17 gathered around her.

After family members snapped photos of the kids dressed in their regalia with hoops over their shoulders, the kids lined up to enter the dance arena and received a few adjustments from Morris, the founder of Native Expressions Art and Dance Studio.

The children's hard work learning the hoop dance was rewarded with an honor song at the Red Cliff powwow on Sunday, after which they danced to applause from the crowd as encouragement.

"We dance for the people. We dance for water. We dance for life and the connections," Morris said. "The hoop dance is about creating that connection and in that hoop, there's no beginning and no end," she said.

Dancer Walter Durant waits for Sunday’s grand entry at the annual Red Cliff powwow. Steve Kuchera / DNTThe Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's 40th annual powwow, with the theme of "celebrating the good life," featured 18 drums and 300 dancers this weekend, including the champion drum group Young Spirit that traveled from Frog Lake, Alberta.

Although the powwow is a celebration every year, reaching its 40th year "is a milestone for the community," Red Cliff Vice Chairman Nathan Gordon said.

"It's alive. It grows on its own. So to hit 40 years — there are some powwows that are 150, some that are 20, some that are three — to hit 40, that's a great accomplishment for the community every year to keep building that. Over the 40 years, we have so many people that come back from all over the area, Canada, Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin," Gordon said.

The powwow is a collaboration between Red Cliff staff and the community, and has evolved over the years with different families and community members helping to organize it, he said. Its location was moved five years ago from a field to a new powwow grounds on the reservation and it was celebrated that year as "new beginnings," he said. The powwow typically has about 16 drums. The number of drums and dancers varies, but they had 33 drums and 600 dancers one year and they'd like to get back to that point, Gordon said.

"We're slowly climbing back up — try to make it a good time for all the visitors, the vendors, family that come back to make new memories and make new friends and taste the frybread," he said.

Powwow committee member Joe Montano Sr.'s grandparents Ike and Toddy Gokee started the powwow 40 years ago and his family ran the powwow for years. This year is the first time Montano has been involved with the powwow committee and he wanted to do a few things "like the old ways," including changing up the feast. He wanted to add a community feeling back into the feast with food "made with love" by having community members help provide the food instead of having it catered, he said.

In a wigwam off to the side at the powwow, two teams competed for first place in a moccasin game tournament on Sunday afternoon. Montano constructed the wigwam on Friday and brought the game to the powwow for the first time this year after he saw it played on the Mille Lacs Reservation. The game was popular prior to the 20th century and is having a resurgence among Anishinaabe today. Montano, who works for the Red Cliff Historic Preservation Office, has been teaching the game to youth and said he'd like to continue to offer it at future powwows.

The game involves two teams trying to guess which moccasin is hiding ball bearings while a drum beat calls the spirits to help. The game teaches people, especially young men, lessons about good sportsmanship and perseverance that they can apply to their lives, he said. He pointed out that the team vying for first place on Sunday had continued playing after losing games the day before and had reached the pinnacle of the tournament.

"You can always come back if you're down. So many kids these days have that 'rage quitting,' they call it. This will help them try to deal with stuff like that, that they can take and use out in life. That's the reason why the game was given to us from the bears, seeing the young men losing their ways and not knowing how to deal with things," Montano said. "We're suffering from the opioid crisis and other drugs. We see people, it seems like they're lost — lost their cultural identity and they feel like they should know more and don't know what to do. It's generational trauma and this is a way to ease them back into knowing who they are. It's a game that teaches things, like being around the drum songs, and brings them to knowing who they are."