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How a Potawatomi tribe lost its culture and what it takes to bring it back

Native American culture has been struggling to survive for more than a century. For a Potawatomi tribe in the Upper Peninsula, tribal culture almost vanished around the 1940s. But for the past four decades, there have been efforts to bring tribal culture back.

This summer, tribes from the Great Lakes region gathered for the annual powwow at the Hannahvillereservation, just outside of Escanaba. Inside a big circle in a grassy outdoor arena, dozens of dancers displayed the moves of their ancestors.

They dance with their chests hunched forward. Their feet move with a rhythmic skip that kind of looks like a chicken walk. Everyone in the circle dressed in elaborate regalia, decorated with feathers, beads, ribbons, and bells. Women danced with small aluminum cones that hung from the fringes of their dresses and jingled to the sound of the drum.

Earl Meshigaud is the cultural director and spiritual leader of the Hannahville Indian Community. He says the drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth and is also the heartbeat of the community.  

A culture lost

Meshigaud says things weren’t always as culturally vibrant as they are now.

“I do remember one of our elders in 1964 saying that it was a sad day when the drums went silent at Hannahville,” he said.

For a century it was illegal in the United States for Native Americans to practice their religion or ceremonies. During that time, Native American children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools. The boarding schools were set up with the mission to “kill the Indian and save the man."

Meshigaud says if kids were caught practicing ceremonies or speaking in their native language, they were beaten.

“Many of the people lost their hearing or eyesight from being beaten. It’s just the way it was in that boarding school,” Meshigaud said.

It takes many tribes to bring the culture back

For about three decades, the Hannahville Indian Community was without its culture. But in the 1970s, The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed and boarding schools dwindled. At that time cultural and spiritual leaders from the Great Lakes, Plains, and Canadian tribes came to Hannahville to bring the culture back.

“They started our fires way back in that time and invited some medicine men down from Canada to help us out. And one guy came from Saskatchewan, and I will always remember him because he sat on the ground in the winter and he started crying, and he told us that his tears were for our people here because we had completely lost our way,” Meshigaud said.

It's up to the youth to keep tribal culture alive

Eric Halfaday was born and raised in Hannahville. He’s 29 years old and has been drumming and singing since he was 9. He’s strikingly tall:  six feet seven inches. At the powwow, he sported a Redskins ball cap and underneath, his ponytail hung halfway down his back. He said it’s awful that drumming was almost lost at Hannahville.

“I’ll never let that happen again,” Halfaday said.

Halfaday leads a drum group in Hannahville. The group is made up of guys mostly in their 20s. It’s this generation that never had to endure boarding schools or federal policies that banned them from their culture.

“The drum itself, I would say that’s what’s keeping Native America alive. It’s making the young boys want to sing and the young girls want to dance and sing. I think it’s our future really. That’s the universal way of getting us together I guess,” Halfaday said.

The leaders who brought the culture back to Hannahville have passed away, and Halfaday said it’s his generation that needs to make sure the drumming stays and keeps the culture alive for generations.