The need for writing tribal histories is great, for among many tribes tribal history, language and culture are rapidly disappearing…as the tribal elders die, it appears that much of the tribal past will also disappear ~ Duane Kendall Hale, Researching and Writing Tribal Histories
Writing about dance history is not an easy task. One cannot presume that one is writing “the” history but rather “a” history. This is the approach that I take when writing about dances associated with the powwow. The difficulty of writing about Native American dances is that they have a history. They did not simply begin with the advent of the powwow. Exactly when and where they began is the task of the tribal historian to interpret through research and resources. The importance of tribal historical narrative is emphasized by Dr. Duane Kendall Hale:
Four distinct reasons for writing tribal histories are: 1) books have been written about Native Americans and not by them, so the Indians point of view is lacking in historical works; 2) historians have romanticized the so-called “Indian wars” of the nineteenth century; 3) historians have failed to write about Indians in the twentieth century [and twenty-first century] – ninety years of twentieth century [and twenty-first century] Indian history is waiting to be written; 4) a large number of books written about Indians have concentrated upon the larger well-known tribes and have ignored the smaller tribes which are rapidly disappearing.
Dr. Hale also writes: In the years leading up to 1989, tribes borrowed ideas, songs, dances, and other traditions from each other to such a great extent that it is often difficult to determine what is unique to that particular tribe.
Men's Woodland Dance is such a dance. Overall, Woodland dance itself is found among Northeastern tribes and Southeastern tribes and has been a part of the dance history and culture in those tribes for many years. To avoid confusion, the term "Men's Woodland" as used here refers to Woodland Dance among the Ojibwe in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Among the Ojibwe, the history of Woodland Dance is difficult to determine. Some see it as a “new” dance that began in the early 2000s. Its popularity among Great Lakes tribes has led to a new category at powwows – Men’s Woodland. It is a unique and specific style of dance with its own type of regalia and songs.
However, Men's Woodland is anything but new. Its history far predates its modern counterpart. Indeed, its history predates the advent of the origin of the powwow itself.
I don’t pretend to know the history of Men's Woodland. Under Dr. Hale’s criteria, it’s a dance that deserves to be written about. However, my knowledge is limited to an Ojibwe perspective and even in that regard, my knowledge is limited to dancers and elders that I’ve talked to and research that I’ve done. I’m sure that others will add to this history in the years ahead. There will be those who will disagree with the words I’ve put down in presenting this history. But then, that’s what history is about – a way of finding our way back to our roots as seen from our own cultural perspectives rather than colonial perspectives.
My own interest with Men's Woodland is not without a personal connection. I began dancing in about 1986. My style was Northern Men’s Traditional. My anishinaabe-agwiwinanregalia (regalia) reflected my Ojibwe cultural connections – floral beadwork and floral motifs. As time passed, I learned that Northern Men's Traditional wasn’t a dance that had deep historical ties to the Ojibwe. It was a dance given to us by the Dakota in the mid-1800s. The point of dispersion is usually attributed at Red Lake in about 1860. It was originally referred to as Bwaani-niimi`idiwin (the Sioux Dance) because of its dispersal by the Dakota. In turn, the Lakota/Dakota referred to the dance as the Omaha Dance because the dance had been passed to them by Omaha and Ponca dance societies.
Nine years ago, my wife decided to make me new anishinaabe-agwiwinan (regalia). She wanted to do agogwaajigan (appliqué) on black wool. Her method combines agogwaajigan with mazinita`ige (embroidery). Agogwaajigan and mazinita'ige were not uncommon among the Ojibwe. Long before the Invasion and advent of colonialism, Ojibwe women embroidered with gaagobiiwayan (porcupine quills). With the infusion of European trade goods, European fabrics led to agogwaajigan that was used on clothing featuring various floral and geometric motifs. The introduction of manidoominag (beads) overshadowed agogwaajigan and mazinita'ige, and by the late 1800s dominated Ojibwe aesthetics.
I found a photo of a man from Lac du Flambeau wearing a Woodland outfit in an old book, “The Book of Indian-Crafts and Costumes.” The photo, from 1946, served as an inspiration of making an outfit completely covered with floral motifs – vest, leggings, and apron. I created the design patterns using floral motifs from Carrie Lyford’s book, “Ojibwa Crafts.” My wife then did her agogwaajigan and mazinita'ige using my designs. I also decided to make an otter turban as I felt that a turban would be befitting and appropriate for my new regalia. I continued to wear my bimoonjigan (bustle), although my bimoonjigan had always been different. Before I began dancing in 1986, I had a dream about a bimoonjigan. I made the bimoonjigan in accordance with my dream – a flat back panel covered with eagle feathers with two spike feathers. I would later, surprisingly, learn that these types of bimoonjiganan were worn by four belt men in the Big Drum ceremony.
Six years ago, I saw my first Woodland Dance. The Bad River powwow committee was featuring a Woodland Special. I had no idea what that was. When I asked, I was told it was basically a men’s traditional style dance but dancing without a bimoonjigan. I noticed that a couple of dancers wore regalia like mine – beaded floral regalia with turbans – and without bimoonjiganan. I also noticed their manner of dance was different. They weren’t dancing the typical Men’s Northern style of dance. And then there were the songs – songs that I recognized as older war dance songs with a faster beat and tempo.
For me, it was easy enough for me to transition to Men's Woodland by simply eliminating my bimoonjigan. At age 71, it is an demanding and exhausting dance. But for me, it’s not about competing. It’s about dancing with, not against, my Woodland contemporaries.
As a writer, Men's Woodland piques my interest. What is this dance and where did it come from? How does this dance connect the present to the past?
Pre-Colonial War Dance
Above, "Chippewa War Dance" below, "Chippewa Scalp Dance," both by Peter Rindisbacher, ca. mid-1820s-1830s. Rindisbacher was an artist whose paintings and drawings depicted several tribes, including the Ojibwe who he visited. His works are notable for the changes he illustrated in tribal material culture. "Chippewa War Dance" shows a minimal impact of European trade fabrics on clothing. "Chippewa Scalp Dance" shows the strong influence of European fabrics on Ojibwe clothing. Equally important were the activities that engaged Ojibwe villages. Rindisbacher's work featuring the War/Scalp Dances underlines the continuity of the War Dance complex amid changing times.
Men’s Woodland Dance has a circular history. Although some attribute it as a modern powwow dance, its beginnings stretch far beyond establishment of the modern powwow dance complex. It is a direct descendant of the War Dance complex.
War dancing was widespread among many tribes across Turtle Island, and there were similarities in war dancing. The Scalp/Victory Dance were part of the dance complex generally referred to as the War Dance. The origin and point of diffusion is unknown. Among the Ojibwe-Anishinaabe ogichidaag (warriors), this old form of war dance was called Nandobaniishimowin. The name is derived from the term Nandobaniiwin, meaning warfare.
Although the Ojibwe did not have warrior societies that paralleled the highly structured Plains warrior societies, there was nevertheless a structure for activities related to warfare. “The Anishinaabe did not perceive war as a constant or even a long-term state, and as a result, permanent war leaders [Mayosewininiwag] were unnecessary…A mayosewinini had only limited authority, and his power was determined largely by the number of warriors who followed him for the duration of the crisis…Mayosewininiwag who consistently demonstrated combined military and spiritual power by winning battles and honors while incurring few or no casualties gained in influence.” Ojibwe “warrior societies had their own identifiable leaders, ceremonies, and prescribed rights for the group that cut across kin and village lines.” It was “restricted to the men who had won war honors.”
The Ojibwe War Dance complex consisted of several interconnected dances. Departure dances were held during the period when the war party was assembled and organized. Once on the war path, dances were held nightly until the area for engagement was reached. If the engagement was successful, the warriors composed songs of their deeds and valor they had achieved during the engagement. They would sing these songs and reenact their deeds through dance at the Victory/Scalp Dance that was held in their home village. Dancing by warriors was held regularly throughout the spring and summer as a part of village gatherings. The Striking-the-Pole Dance was a common feature at communal dances in which warriors struck a center pole and then sang and danced of their deeds in war.
In "Chippewa Music," Odjib’we provided information on Ogichidaag customs, regalia, songs, and dances. Regarding the Victory Dance, Odjib’we said: “On returning, a victorious war party sent runners in advance to carry news of their approach, and preparations for a suitable reception were begun at once. Meantime, the warriors made their last camp before reaching home; here they rehearsed the songs concerning the victory and arrayed themselves in their finest apparel. As they approached the village…the women came out to meet them. One woman led the party, to whom were given the scalps taken by the warriors. Then the women led the procession, the scalp bearers in advance, waving the scalps and singing. After the party reached the village preparations for the victory dance were begun. The [scalp] poles were stuck in the ground beside the pile of food, and the feast was called ‘feasting the Sioux.’ In response this song [the Gift Song] the warriors rose and danced, singing of what they had done on the warpath. Gifts were distributed to all the people by members of the warrior’s clan. The next event was the victory dance, which often continued until daylight, by the light of torches and bonfires. At the conclusion of these dances, the scalps were carefully wrapped until the next dance. [T]hey were sent to another village, where similar dances were held.”
Both the war dance and the scalp dance were non-secular dances – they weren’t social dances. However, changes began in the late 1840s and early 1850s that would bring the non-secular dances into the social dance. Both the war dance and the scalp dance were performed for visiting government dignitaries and missionaries.
William Warren described a nandobaniishimo in held in the early 1700s: “On occasions of this nature, the warriors work themselves by hard dancing, yelling, and various contortions of the body…” Actions and deeds on the battlefield were “boasted of in their triumphal dances and warlike festivities.” Ogichidaag gathered in the spring and summer “to engage in festivities and dances, during which the events and exploits of past years are sung and recited; and while they derive fresh courage and stimulus to renewed exertion, the young, who are listeners, learn to emulate their fathers and take their earliest lessons in the art of war.”
Regarding the customs of the Ogichidaag, Warren wrote: “This customary procedure on the eve of the an attack or battle, being performed, the warriors grasped their medicine bags, and hurriedly adorned their faces and naked bodies with war paint, those that earned them planted the eagle plumes on their headdress, which denoted enemies they had slain or scalps taken and…charms of supposed invulnerability were attached to different portions of their headdress, armlets, or belts.”
In preparation for a visit by Washington officials, Johann Georg Kohl wrote: “According to traditional custom, the pipe of peace passed from tent to tent…among the warriors. When each had smoked, the procession started, and marched with drums beating, fluttering feather flags…through the village, to the open space before the old fort of North-West Company. Here they put up a wooden post, and close to it their war-flag, after which the dances, speeches, and songs began. A circle was formed of brown-skinned dancers, with the musicians and singers in the middle. To the music, the warriors hopped around in a circle, shaking the otter, fox, and beaver tails attached to their arms and heads. At times the singing and dancing was interrupted: with flying hair and skins a warrior walked into the circle, raised his tomahawk, and struck the post a smart blow, as a signal that he was going to describe his warrior deeds.”
Henry Schoolcraft wrote: “This ceremony, together with what is called striking the post, was performed during our stay. The warriors, arrayed for war, danced in a circle to the music of their drum and rattles. After making a fixed number of revolutions, they stopped simultaneously and uttered a sharp war yell. A man then stepped out, and raising his club and striking a pole at the center, related a personal exploit in war. The dance was then resumed, and terminated in like manner by yells, when another warrior related his exploits. This was repeated as long as there were exploits to tell…”
By the late 1880s, the Nandobaniishimowin was overshadowed by the emergence of the Bwaani-niimi'idiwin (Sioux Dance). The adaption of the Bwaani-niimi'idiwin was a cross-over of the war dance. The dance and songs of this newly emerging men’s dance developed from the warrior societies of the Omaha and Ponca. The secular version incorporated items that were carried and clothing worn by warriors. Perhaps the most significant piece was the dance bustle, a piece not previously worn by northern tribes that had adapted the dance.
For the Ojibwe, the Bwaani-niimi’idiwin was an extension of the old war dance. War dance was a widely used term among northern tribes in connection with this dance. Originally, dancers who danced the new dance were called Grass Dancers in reference to the braided hoops of sweetgrass they wore. In the non-secular version of the dance among the Omaha and Ponca, warriors wore scalps. The secular version switched to braided sweetgrass. By the late 1800s, the dance broke into two differing dances – the grass dance, i.e., dancers who danced without bustles, and the war dance, i.e., dancers who wore bustles. In the Ojibwe language, bwaanzhii-niimi translated as “dance war dance.” The root word, “Bwaan (Dakota/Sioux),” connected the dancer to the new dance - Bwaani-niimi’idiwin. Overall, these dancers were called “war dancers” until the dance was more formalized as the Northern Men’s Traditional dance category in the 1960s.
At the time of the development of the modern war dance, i.e. the Sioux Dance, colonialism radically reduced tribal land bases and restricted tribal life to reservations. Enforced assimilation through missionaries destroyed the language and disrupted the clan system and traditional practices. Government policies replaced traditional council governance with Indian Reorganization Act governments.
Through the Bwaani-niimi’idiwin, the Sioux Dance, the Ojibwe maintained a connection to their old war dance, the Nandobaniishimowin. The non-secular elements disappeared largely because the way of the war path had ended. Ogichidaaag no longer went on the war path to achieve honor, and the villages no longer engaged in the dances associated with the War Dance complex. Everything was changing because of the impact of Euro-American colonialism. The Bwaani-niimi’idiwin allowed for the continuation of the war dance albeit under a newer and emerging dance complex – the powwow.
Traditionlists still tried to maintain ties to the old. Photographs from 1910-1920, show men at powwows dressed in full Woodland regalia. Other photos show the war and scalp dance performed at Ponemah and White Earth.
War Dance at Obaashing (Ponemah), 1910. Photo by Francis Densmore from Chippewa Music. Densmore attended the Fourth of July Celebration at Obaashing in 1910 and recorded over 40 songs that were dream songs. She wrote: "It is probable that most of the songs were used in war. This is not difficult to understand. The young man who had a dream in his fasting vigil was usually an individual of character and strength of purpose. War was the principal career which offered itself in the old days and the man of the dream had the qualifications which made for success. After he had sung his dream song on the warpath he sang it at the dances preparatory to war, and in time it became the common property of the tribe." Several of the songs that Densmore recorded were related to the War Dance complex. Some songs were preparatory war songs and others "used in the victory dances which followed a successful war expedition..."
Scalp Dance at White Earth, ca. 1910
Interconnections with Baaga'adowewin (Lacrosse)
Red Cliff vs. Bad River, 1937, Painting- Artist Unknown
The game of Lacrosse originated in the Northeastern Woodlands among the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), and dispersed among the tribes living in the St. Lawrence Valley system including the people that the Haudenosaunee called Dwăkănĕņ" - the Ojibwe. The Ojibwe called the game Baaga'adowewin, which is usually translated as “they bump hips.”
Games were played intertribally between communities. They sometimes served to settle supratribal conflicts, for healing practices involving communities or individuals, and to appease the Creator.
Although each tribe integrated their own tribally specific traditions and spiritual beliefs, the general theme of war and the War Dance complex were interwoven throughout the structure of the game.
In general, on the night before a game, players donned their warrior regalia and performed a dance similar to the Departure Dance in which war exploits were recounted through dance. At the conclusion of the game, the winning team would don their regalia and perform a Victory Dance.
Medicine men played a central role and conducted purification ceremonies on the night preceding the game, blessed players and playing sticks, and painted the players. During play, they often positioned themselves with the singers and drums that sang on the sidelines.
On the playing field, like the warpath, the players wore bare essentials – loincloths and moccasins. Like warriors, they wore talismans that would provide protection, strength and abilities on the playing field. Their playing sticks weren’t unlike ball-headed clubs carried into battle. Their faces and bodies were painted and their war cries echoed throughout the game. From the Pre-Reservation Period to the early Reservation Period, Baaga'adowewin provided a means for young men to develop physical abilities and to connect to their traditions as warriors.
Baaga’adowewin is deeply embedded in Ojibwe culture. Origin stories underline its longevity and importance among Ojibwe people. As the game spread among tribes located in the St. Lawrence Valley system, including the Ojibwe, tribes integrated their own mindsets, beliefs, and ceremonies into the game. Origin stories of how the game began evolved among the tribes that adapted the game. The origin stories invariably connected the game to the thunder-beings. Thunder-beings were associated with war and, hence, connected Baaga'adowewin to the way of ogichidaag.
“One Ojibwe belief is that the way of playing the game once came to a boy in a dream. In his dream, the boy saw a large open valley and a crowd of Indians approaching him. A younger member of the group invited him to join them at a feast. He entered a wigwam where a medicine man was preparing medicine for a great game. The lacrosse sticks were held over the smoking medicine to doctor them and ensure success in the game. After the players formed into two teams and erected goal posts, the medicine man gave the signal to start, and the ball was tossed into the air amid much shouting and beating of drums. In his dream, the boy scored a goal. When he awakened, he related his experiences to his elders, who interpreted it as a dictate from the Thunderbirds. This is how the game of lacrosse began.”
Interestingly, Baaga’adowewin isn’t attributed to Nenabozho, the Ojibwe culture hero. Nenabozho, our great uncle, provided us with the lessons of life and survival at the time when the Earth was new. Following the cycle of Nenabozho stories, a second corpus of origin stories emerged. These stories focused on the dawn of the Ojibwe world, when the awesiinhyag (animals) dominated the Earth and humans played a much lesser role in the Creation. These were ancient stories that explained how things came to be – why certain awesiinhyag had certain colors or behaviors or why the seasons changed. The following two stories indicate that Baaga’adowewin wasn’t a game that was just played among humans; it was also a game played by the awesiinhyag. The importance of the stories provides a timeline of Baaga’adowewin among the Ojibwe. In this regard, Baaga’adowewin wasn’t a new game that developed after the Ojibwe settled the Great Lakes region. Rather, the game existed long before that at a time when the Ojibwe lived in the St. Lawrence Valley. By the time the Ojibwe reached the Great Lakes, Baaga’adowewin was already well established and deeply ingrained in Ojibwe culture.
In “Why Birds Go South in Winter,” there was only one season – summer. Awesiinhyag (animals) play among each other. They play games including Baaga’adowewin. Maang (Loon) is especially fond of Baaga’adowewin and constantly encourages the other bineshiiyag (birds) to play matches with him. One day, Maang challenges Gekek (Hawk) to a match between the bineshiiyag.
Gekek’s team has gaagaagi (raven), gookooko’oo (owl), gijigijigaanshinh (chickadee), bineshiin (thrush), misko-bineshiinh (cardinal), meme (woodpecker), aagask (grouse), jaashaawanibiisi (junco), mayaagibine (pheasant), bine (partridge), apishi-gaagaagi (magpie), and mashkiigobine (spruce grouse). Maang’s team includes nikaa (Canada goose), wiindigoo-bineshiinh (kingbird), opichi (robin), gwaagwaashkwanjiins (sparrow), ozhaawasshko-bineshiinh (bluebird), waabanoong bineshii (oriole), miskwegini-binesi (scarlet tanager), jiichiishkwenh (plover), apagaade-ikwewinini (thrasher), zhaashaawanibiisii (swallow), gaazhigensiwi-bineshiinh (catbird), and ogashkimansi (kingfisher).
As always, a wager is made. In this case, the winner will announce the wager at the game’s conclusion.
It is a ferocious match with injuries on both sides. Gaagaagi (Raven), who has been injured, scores the winning goal. As a result of the victory, Gekek dictates that the east wind would bring clouds, rain, and thunderstorms, during which Baaga’adowewin can’t be played.
Maang, who feels that Gekek’s team has cheated, challenges Gekek to another game. Once again, Maang’s team loses the match.
This time, Gekek issues a sterner penalty for losing the game. As a result of the loss, the north wind will bring cold and snow, and Maang and his friends will have to leave the land and go south. Thus, certain birds fly south for the winter.
In “Thunderbirds and Fireflies,” the young thunderbirds are troublesome birds that were always causing great, destructive storms in their rambunctious play. Their fathers decided to teach them to play lacrosse.
Instead of baaga'adowaan (lacrosse sticks), the young thunderbirds use their wings to wield the ball that had been made from lightning. However, their furious play and flapping of winds causes a great storm and the ball falls to earth. The ball hits the earth and the impact creates Hudson Bay. The smaller pieces of the ball create the smaller lakes in Ontario. Stars fall from the sky and break into thousands of pieces that blink off and on. The falling stars change into fireflies.
As noted, the importance of these two stories emphasizes the early connection of Baaga’adowewin among the Ojibwe. The bird story points out the rough physical nature of the game and gambling as a central point in the game. The thunderbird story reemphasizes gambling and connects the game to war because of the thunderbirds association to war.
Another Baaga’adowewin story that focuses on the warlike attributes of the game is “Wakayabide is Killed Playing Lacrosse and Later Takes Revenge.” Wakayabide is a long story that comprises two, interlinked, central parts. In the first part, Wakayabide is introduced as a manidoo. He mysteriously appears in a village, naked with his intestines hanging out. The young ogimaa (leader) of the village, Madjikiwis, has three sisters. Madjikiwis is a powerful warrior whose bikwaakwado-bagamaagan (ball-headed war club) emits thunder and lightning. Through Madjikiwis’ intervention, Wakayabide marries the littlest of sisters.
The three sisters have been having affairs with other powerful men. Three of them challenge Wakayabide to disprove that he is a manidoo. The first two men are shape-shifters. The first one is gichi-makwa (grizzly bear) and the second one is waabi-makwa (polar bear). The third one has power over water and can make the rivers rise.
Wakayabide easily wins each challenge and he is accepted as a powerful manidoo.
The following day, a Baaga’adowewin match is announced. Gichi-makwa gives Wakayabide a baaga'adowaan (stick) to play with.
Although Wakayabide has brought his bow and arrows with, he leaves his belt at his lodge. The belt contains his spirit helper, ma’iingan (wolf), and ma’iingan had told him to always wear his belt for protection. Gichi-makwa attacks Wakayabide and kills him. He is eaten by the people in the village and his bones are tossed aside.
Inside his lodge, his wife hears the howl of a ma’iingan. She realized it is coming from Wakayabide’s belt. She opens a small pouch on the belt and a small ma’iingang appears. The ma’iingan sets out to find Wakayabide’s bones. Once the bones are found and brought back, they are placed in a pile. The ma’iingan howls four times. With the first howl, the bones reassemble into the shape of a man. With the second howl, flesh appears on the bones. With the third howl, Wakayabide’s eyes open up. On the fourth howl, Wakayabide begins to breathe again.
The next day, another Baaga’adowewin match is announced. In this match, Wakayabide wears his belt and brings his arrows. During the match, Wakayabide attacks gichi-makwa and kills him. Afterward, the bear is cut up, cooked, and shared through the village. The village plays Baaga’adowewin for live people. That is how they get their meat. They eat each other. The bear itself comes back to life the next day because he is a powerful manidoo.
The story of Wakayabide contains many elements that thread through many Ojibwe hero stories. Obviously, this story isn’t about humans playing Baaga’adowewin. It’s about Manidoog (Spirits) playing the game. The connection to the thunderbirds is maintained through Madjikiwis and his war club that flashes thunder and lightning. Indeed, Wakayabide’s association with the binesiwag (thunder beings) is emphasized through his marriage to Madjikiwis’ sister. Wakayabide’s belt is like other personal items that have preternatural qualities found in many hero stories. In this case, his belt protects him and holds his spiritual protector – the ma’iingan. The game that is played is violent and ends in death, although both Wakayabide and the grizzly bear are reanimated back into life. The game is undoubtedly a game between ogichidaag (warriors) in which the players display their skills as ogichidaag. Wakayabide obviously has the favor of the thunderbirds through his association with Madjikiwis. However, in the first game, he is over-matched because he lacks the proper protection (i.e., his belt); in the second game, he enters the field in full array and easily defeats his foe. A darker element of the story ties into the Wiidigoog, beings who were once humans that grew in size and bulk as a result of their consummation of human flesh.
The most famous and deadliest game of Baaga’adowewin happened at Fort Michilimackinac on June 4, 1763. In resistance of newly imposed British trade policies, the Ojibwe, with Sauk allies, attacked the fort as a part of Pontiac’s War. In “History of the Ojibway Nation”, William Warren provides an account of the attack:
During the whole night the Ojibways were silently busy in making preparations for the morrows work. They sharpened their knives and tomahawks, and filed short off their guns, In the morning these weapons were entrusted to the care of their women, who, hiding them under the folds of their blankets, were ordered to stand as near as possible to the gate of the fort, as if to witness the game which the men were about to play. Over a hundred on each side of the Ojibways and Osaugees [Sauk], all chosen men, now sallied forth from their wigwams, painted and ornamented for the occasion…
This game of Baug-ah-ud-o-way is played with a bat and ball. The bat is about four feet long, terminating at one end into a circular curve, which is netted with leather strings…
On the morning of the 4th of June, after the cannon of the fort had been discharged in commemoration of the king’s natal day, the ominous ball was up a short distance in front of the gate…and the exciting game commenced. The two hundred players, their painted persons streaming with feathers, ribbons, fox and wolf tails, swayed to and fro as the ball was carried backwards and forwards by either party, who for the moment had possession of it…
The game, played as it was, by the young men of two different tribes, became exciting, and the commandant of the fort even took his stand outside his open gates, to view its progress. His soldiers stood carelessly unarmed, here and there, intermingling with the Indian women, who gradually huddled near the gateway…
In the struggle for its possession, the ball at last was gradually carried toward the open gates, and all at once, after having reached a proper distance, an athletic arm caught it up in his bat, and as if by accident threw it within the precincts of the fort. With one deafening yell and impulse, the players rushed forward in a body, as if to regain it, but as they reached their women and entered the gateway, they threw down their wooden bats and grasping the shortened guns, tomahawks, and knives, the massacre commenced, and the bodies of the unsuspecting British soldiers soon lay strewn about, lifeless, horribly mangled, and scalpless.
According to Alexander Henry, a well-known trader who witnessed the attack, “of ninety troops, about seventy were killed; the rest were kept in safety by the Ottawas and then freely restored, or ransomed at Montreal.” The French who lived within the confines of the fort were left unharmed. The fort wasn’t held because the main focus of Pontiac’s Rebellion was to attack British forts and encampments, withdraw, and shift the attack elsewhere to drive the British from the hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds of the Great Lakes region. Warren notes that the Lake Superior Ojibwe weren’t part of the attack on Fort Michilimackinac.
Warren states: “The above is the account, much briefened, which I have learned verbally from the old French traders and half-breeds, who learned it from the lips of those who were present and witnessed the bloody transaction.”
From another perspective, Warren’s informants provide a descriptive look at the game itself. The game was played on a large playing field with goalposts at each end. Teams were composed of multiple numbers. The players wore paint, feathers, ribbons, and fox and wolf tails. Their game attire wasn’t unusual. The British were familiar with the game and had observed it many times. As such, they were familiar with the type of attire worn by the players. The fox and wolf tails may have distinguished each team, i.e., perhaps fox tails for the Sauk and wolf tails for the Ojibwe. However, wearing parts of animals and birds were common among Baaga’adowe players. The spiritual essence and character of the animals and birds were absorbed by Baaga’adowe players and provided swiftness and agility on the playing field. Of course, the wearing of animals and birds wasn’t merely for adornment. Like the wolf in Wakayabide’s belt, they provided players with strength and protection. The wearing of such items was the mainstay of ogichidaag who wore these items, for the same reason, on the field of battle. The wearing of paint was also an ogichidaag mainstay whose war paint had significant meaning to the wearer.
Such attire didn’t raise the alarm to the unsuspecting British. They had seen it before. It was part of the game. However, at Fort Michilimackinac, the symbolic battle field of Baaga’adowewin became a real battle field once the attack commenced.
Although the attack was strategically planned and executed under the guise of Baaga’adowewin, it would follow that everything associated with the game would be effectuated – purification ceremonies for the players, the pre-game Departure Dance, and the Victory/Scalp Dance to celebrate the taking of the fort.
Baaga’adowewin was well established among the Minnesota and Wisconsin Ojibwe in the Pre-Reservation period and early Reservation Period, i.e. mid-1800s-early 1900s. In Minnesota, Ojibwe bands engaged in inter-tribal play at Baaga’adowaaning located on the Gaazagaskwaajimekaag Ishkonigan (Leech Lake Reservation). Baaga'adowaaning is translated as “Lacrosse stick” or “The place where you play Lacrosse” and, in its English translation, provides the name of the town of Ball Club. Bois Forte played regularly against the Rainy Lake Ojibwe. Quite often, their games were played on ice. Some games were played at International Falls between U.S. bands and Canadian bands.
In Wisconsin, Baaga’adowewin was played regularly at Madeline Island during the mid-1800s. Bad River and Red Cliff of the Lake Superior Ojibwe hosted teams that played against each other and in tournaments with Ojibwe teams from outside the region. However, the history of Baaga’adowewin stretches back hundreds of years to the Pre-Contact Period when Madeline Island was called Mooningwanekaaning-minis (Home of the Golden-Breasted Flicker) and was the homeland for many Ojibwe before their migration into western and southern Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The historical record of Baaga’adowewin is sparse in regard to the various traditions that were incorporated into the game. Government officials and explorers witnessed games and wrote about them largely from the view as spectators. Anthropologists overlooked the importance of Baaga’adowewin and its rich history and traditions. To them, it was just a game, albeit a widely played game, and one among many games played by Native Americans. But photographs from Wisconsin provide intriguing clues as to the traditions that were incorporated into the game.
A photograph from 1918 shows the Bad River Ba-ga-dwa-in (Lacrosse) team on the playing field at Odanah, Wisconsin. Behind the team are four individuals holding hand-drums. These individuals would have provided songs that were sung during the game. Next to them is an elder holding a lacrosse stick. This would be the medicine man who conducted pre-game ceremonies for the players and who served in his capacity as the team’s spiritual coach on the sidelines. At the center of the group of players, an individual wears a playing uniform typical of the era. The stars on the uniform indicate that this man was the team’s captain. The players are dressed in post-game apparel – Woodland attire that includes leggings, aprons, floral shirts, fur or cloth turbans, and beaded belts. A celebratory dance, i.e., Victory Dance, and feast would follow.
Bad River players in post-game Woodland attire, 1913
The photos of Bad River Baaga’adowewin players depict a substantial link between the old Nandobaniishimowin, i.e. War Dance complex, and a more secular version that had emerged within the structure of the game. However, this secular game version itself has long historical roots, one that reached back to the Pre-Colonial period when tribes who lived in the St. Lawrence Valley system played the game and engaged in conflict with one another. In other words, the two – warfare and the game - existed side by side and both complimented the other.
By the Reservation Period, the secularized war dance, a direct descendant of Nandobaniishimowin, was a part of Ojibwe dance gatherings. Photos from the early 1900s attest that this type of dance, which could be properly termed as Woodland dance, was danced by traditionalists while the dance structure was undergoing changes with the emerging Bwaani-niimi'idiwin (Sioux Dance).
Red Lake, Woodland dancers, ca. early 1900s.
Deer River, Bois Forte Ojibwe, Woodland dancers, ca. early 1900s.
Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, Woodland dancers, early 1900s.
.In 2007, the Hunting Moon Powwow, hosted by the Forest County Potawatomi, held the first Woodland Special in Milwaukee. According to D.J. Smith, one of the organizers: “This was something that was getting lost. My brother and I sat on the original pow wow committee and we always talked about that dance and you never see it. That’s why it started out as a special. We remember this from our younger years in ceremonies and later on the pow wow circuit.”
The dance field for the Woodland Special was largely composed of Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe dancers. The Woodland Special wasn’t a reinvention of Northeastern Woodland within a Great Lakes context like some observers thought. It wasn’t a new dance. Rather it was the reemergence of Great Lakes Woodland that had a long history among Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ojibwe. For the dancers, Great Lakes Woodland connected them with past dance traditions that had diminished greatly under the contemporary powwow.
The regalia reflected ties to the ancestral past – feathered turbans, bandolier bags, floral leggings, vests/yokes, and aprons, and ball-headed war clubs or baaga’adowaan (lacrosse sticks). Baaga’adowaanag further emphasized connections to Baaga’adowewin and its interconnections to Victory/Scalp Dance.
Following the introduction of the Woodland Special at Hunting Moon, other powwow committees in Wisconsin, most notably Bad River, began to sponsor Woodland Specials. From Wisconsin, the Woodland Special spread into Minnesota, reaching Leech Lake and White Earth.
Today, the Woodland Special is no longer a special dance featured at Ojibwe powwows. It has become a regular category dance – Men’s Woodland. It has kindled a renaissance among Ojibwe dancers, one that embodies the traditions of ogichidaag.
This article has focused primarily on Ojibwe historical roots to Men’s Woodland. There are, of course, many other tribes – Menominee, Potawatomie, Oneida, Ho-chunk among others - who have reconnected to the dance and have their own histories. In this regard, Men’s Woodland is not a homogeneous dance; rather it is a supratribal dance engaged by many. Like the War Dance of olden times, each dancer brings his own version of the war dance into the dance circle and, through his dance, tells the story of exploits on a war path connected to the tribal past. For the veterans who dance Woodland, the war dance is real-time expression of their experiences; for non-veteran dancers, the dance expresses the essence of one’s soul-spirit.
Men’s Woodland adds a rich hue to the tapestry of the powwow. But it is more than just dance. In our Seven Fires Prophesy, it is said that in the time of the Seventh Fire we will retrace our steps to find what was left by the trail. In Woodland dance, we have found something that was left by the trail. Through Woodland dance, what was left is strongly remembered, and one that will be passed on to the Seventh Generation. And in this, we help to fulfill a prophesy given to our ancestors when the Earth was new. Mii sa go.
Seventh Generation Woodland dancers / Photos by Ron Hamm.
© All Rights Reserved, Robert DesJarlait, 2018
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