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Ann Arbor 200

Dance, Music, Art & Community: 50 Years of the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow

Dance, Music, Art & Community: 50 Years of the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow

corresponding physical exhibit is on display in the second-floor exhibit space at the Downtown Library from March 16 - June 14, 2024.

See all exhibit inclusions at: 50 Years of Dance for Mother Earth Powwow
See all exhibit powwow programs covers at


THE DANCE FOR MOTHER EARTH POWWOW, held on the living lands of the Anishinaabeg (Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi) in Ann Arbor, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The intertribal event traces its beginnings to a small outdoor gathering in a field at Knights of Columbus Park. Hosted first by American Indians Unlimited (AIU), and later by the University of Michigan Native American Student Association (NASA), the powwow has seen many changes in its 50-year history. Since its founding, NASA has collaborated with other local indigenous-led organizations to stage the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, becoming one of the largest student organized powwows in the country.

From its beginnings at Knights of Columbus Park, which  was located off Dexter Road between Wagner and Zeeb, the event moved to the Michigan Union Ballroom, Huron High School, Cleary College, and other locations. In 1982, the University of Michigan began financially sponsoring the event. In 1990, the powwow expanded to U-M’s Crisler Arena where it remained until 2008. After that year, NASA and other powwow organizers withdrew from U-M’s financial support in light of several issues, among them the rematriation/repatriation of indigenous ancestors and artifacts from university museums. The powwow was then held at Saline Middle School for three years. It moved to Pioneer High School in 2012, and in 2013 returned to Crisler for one year. Since 2014, the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow has been held at Skyline High School.

Though 1972 is the first year considered part of the current Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, there were frequent powwows held in the area, including those organized by Eli (Washsuhkom or Little Elk) Thomas, Jack Neyome, James Shaffer, and Betty, Joan, and Judy Pamp. This group along with other members of the Grand River American Indian Society were responsible for early Ann Arbor powwows, organized in 1964.

Before the mid-20th century, powwows were illegal under several laws passed in the 1800s through the early 1900s. Powwows were often held in Ann Arbor in the 1960s-1970s but remained legally unprotected until the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA). Until then, smudging, tobacco, and many dances were banned.

Modern powwows are not a traditional form of religious practice, and the iterations we see today trace their roots back to post-World War II pan-Indian culture, with a resurgence and refinement in the 1970s. Dance, drums, and art play a central role in the proceedings, with an emphasis on the art form of regalia. Vendors sell multimedia works and wares, and drummers and singers form the center of the dance arena.

This exhibit is a look back at the vibrant 50-year history of the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, featuring reprinted programs and posters from collections at the Bentley Historical Library, photographs, news articles, and artwork by Anishinaabe artist Jamie John.


From the collection of the Bentley Historical Library, original program covers ranging from the years 1979-2019 have been scanned and reproduced for this exhibit.

These programs were distributed at events, and the artwork for each year can be found repeated in newspaper advertisements (such as those selected for this exhibit) and posters. 



Local news organizations routinely covered the annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, whether through full-length articles, or advertisements with graphics. In a 1985 article from the Ann Arbor News, author Whitley Setrakian notes: “Traditions were formulated by our grandparents and greatgrandparents back in the days when people had time to formulate such things, right? Wrong. Traditions are alive and well and new ones are being born and strengthened all the time.”

In an Ann Arbor Observer article from 2012, Art Brandt, a participant in the powwow since it began in 1972, said: “The powwow’s intention in 1972 was primarily to break the stereotype of the Television Indian.” The goal of the powwow was not only to break stereotypes, but to revive vibrant, educational celebrations that included drums, song, and dance.

See all of our collections related to Dance for Mother Earth Powwow:



Full-sized posters in the Bentley Library’s collection have also been scanned and reproduced for this exhibit. The poster from 1973–the second year of the powwow–notes that the celebration “is to be held in honor of the late Wilber Shaganaby” who died under suspicious circumstances in Berrien County Jail on December 15, 1972.

Twenty years later, in 1992, the poster notes that the annual powwow is among the top Native American celebrations in America. By 1993, the complexity of the poster design and artwork indicated the continued success of the powwow as a destination event in Ann Arbor.


Dancers in jingle dresses at Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at Crisler Arena, March 1991

Dancers in jingle dresses at Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at Crisler Arena, March 1991

Dance styles vary regionally, but the most commonly performed dances in the Great Lakes area are: Men’s Traditional, Women’s Traditional, Men’s Fancy, Fancy Shawl, and Jingle. Dancers wear regalia, which is elaborate and often consists of items of clothing created by the dancer, traded with another artist, or gifted by a family member or friend.

The jingle dress is one of the most visually recognizable, with metal tassels applied to fabric that make a “swooshing” sound that plays into the percussive dance performance. Styles of regalia vary regionally, as do stories of the origin of the jingle dress. The dress is said to have originated in a dream around the time of World War I (perhaps the influenza pandemic of 1918), and is known to have healing powers. However, often the jingle dances (and other styles) performed at powwows are secular in nature.  

An interview with JAMIE JOHN

Jamie John
Jamie John, artist

Artwork by indigenous two-spirit trans and queer Anishinaabe and Korean-American artist Jamie John is featured here, with a series of prints including Red Dress Special. John shared that the Red Dress Special “is a dance special sometimes held at powwow. This dance asks for everyone wearing a red regalia to come out and dance for the ones our nations have lost to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Transgender + 2 Spirit People (MMIWGT2S).” The series of prints features both jingle dresses and elk tooth regalia.

AADL interviewed Jamie about how his relationship to powwow illuminates his personal experiences:

How did you first become involved in powwow, and what did you participate in?

I’ve been involved in powwow ever since I was little. I was gifted my first jingle dress at seven years old and my tribe had the financial support of a grant that allowed me to attend class that taught me hoop dance—from instruction on how to dance, how to make my hoops, and the teachings that come with the dance. My participation in powwow has always been as a dancer but I’ve never done powwow alone—even when I’ve been by myself. My regalia is designed by me and made by my mom, my beadwork is made by my auntie before she passed away, my jingle cones are prayers for health, the water, the air, my ancestors, the animals and insects, the land and the plants that grow on it, and for those who I know are struggling with addiction, mental health, and grief. During my social and medical gender transition I stopped powwow dancing as a way to avoid being misgendered. In the past few years I’ve gone back to powwow dancing in both hoop and jingle and I’ve found the ability to grow into my community role and take on my responsibilities as a two-spirit person. My most rewarding experiences have been traveling to other communities in areas like San Francisco and Seattle to participate in their powwow culture and being able to share myself as an Anishinaabe person in these ways.

What do you remember most about the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor?

The first and only time I attended the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow was actually last year when I was head dancer with Beedoskah Stonefish. It was the 49th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow and I was very honored to both be a two-spirit head dancer and to be dancing alongside another member of my Anishinaabe community.

What I remember most from the Dance for Mother Earth powwow is dancing nearly every song I could. I was able to dance alongside people who have known me my entire life and meet new powwow dancers coming from throughout the Great Lakes region. Seeing everyone in the area filled my heart knowing how many people came out for powwow. I loved watching the category dances like the fancy shawl and woodland traditional dancers and dancing for elder George Martin was a highlight of my powwow.

Do you have a favorite memory associated with the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow?

My favorite memory associated with the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow was being able to share my art during the giveaway at the 49th Annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow and seeing how many people chose my prints to take home. I don’t make regalia myself but my art is inspired by my experiences as a powwow dancer, Anishinaabe relationships to plants and landscapes, and similarities found within global Indigenous identities. I felt very fortunate to both be there as one of the head dancers and to have the art I placed out to give away be honored in the same way as I was.   


Drums are the heartbeat of the powwow. In a 1978 Ann Arbor News article, it is noted that the 1972 inaugural celebration featured one drum and 30 dancers. By 1978, just six years later, 10 drums and 300 dancers would attend the event at Huron High School. By the 1990s, events were regularly held at Crisler and brought in around 10,000 guests. In 1997, Treetown, a local Drum group from the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area, was one of the Host Drums for the 25th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow. Founded around 1994 by Terry Samuels and Kevin Gasco, with Andrew Adams as their original Drumkeeper, the group attended Dance for Mother Earth Powwow in Ann Arbor for years before becoming host.

That same year, they attended powwows in Atlanta and Nevada. At the time, the drum utilized by the group was three feet across, with elk skin stretched over an octagonal frame, struck with red mallets. The Ann Arbor News interviewed Adams in 1997, who stated: “It’s a member of the community. In this region of the United States–the Great Lakes–the fortunate native communities will have a drum...The way we perceive it, to us it’s our grandfather. We treat it with the same respect you’d give a grandfather.” The drum group consisted of members with diverse backgrounds, making it an intertribal group that Red Elk Banks described as “different from other reservation drum groups.” In 2004, Nick Reo, the Drumkeeper from 2003- 2007, noted in an interview that the “Tree Town Singers”, would be one of 10 drums at that year’s 25th annual powwow. Other drum groups in the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area that have attended Dance for Mother Earth Powwows are Blue Lake Drum/Singers and Hard Core Singers.

An interview with JOE REILLY

Joe Reilly, Sitting in Field with Guitar
Photograph by Silver Thumb Photography

When did you first become involved singing with Treetown?

I first started singing with Treetown as a freshman atUofMin1996.

Did you ever play at the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow? If so, what do you remember most about past powwows?

Yes, we sang at the Ann Arbor Pow Wow every year. It was always an exciting reunion of friends, family, and extended family from across Turtle Island.

Where else did you perform as part of Treetown?

We traveled to sing at various events, ceremonies, and gatherings in Indian Country. Mostly around Michigan but occasionally we traveled out of state.

Have you been involved in any other musical groups since?

Yes, I have branched off to create my own music and have performed with various groups since that time. My current band is called the Community Gardeners.

You will be performing as part of the 50th Anniversary Powwow along with performers Keith Secola, Annie Humphrey, and the All Nations Dancers at The Ark. Tell us about your involvement in planning the golden anniversary of the powwow and its many offerings this year?

I wanted to help our Native community as well as the broader community in southeast Michigan celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ann Arbor Pow Wow. I had been in conversations with the Ark about helping to create a more racially diverse space there, and they were very excited and generous in agreeing to host the concert. I invited Keith and Annie — who I had the privilege to tour with after graduating from U of M in 2000—and they were both happy to accept the invitation. I am happy to contribute in my own humble ways to this community celebration. Some Treetown alums will also be present to sing a song at the pow wow and at the concert.

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