Ho-Chunk Powwows and the Politics of Tradition

Ho-Chunk Powwows and the Politics of Tradition

Ho-Chunk Powwows and the Politics of Tradition

Ho-Chunk Powwows and the Politics of Tradition

Synopsis

Ho-Chunk powwows are the oldest powwows in the Midwest and among the oldest in the nation, beginning in 1902 outside Black River Falls in west-central Wisconsin. Grant Arndt examines Wisconsin Ho-Chunk powwow traditions and the meanings of cultural performances and rituals in the wake of North American settler colonialism. As early as 1908 the Ho-Chunk people began to experiment with the commercial potential of the powwows by charging white spectators an admission fee. During the 1940s the Ho-Chunk people decided to de-commercialize their powwows and rededicate dancing culture to honor their soldiers and veterans. Powwows today exist within, on the one hand, a wider commercialization and conflict between intertribal "dance contests" and, on the other, efforts to emphasize traditional powwow culture through a focus on community values such as veteran recognition, warrior songs, and gift exchange.
In Ho-Chunk Powwows and the Politics of Tradition, Arndt shows that over the past two centuries the dynamism of powwows within Ho-Chunk life has changed greatly, as have balances of tradition and modernity within community life. His book is a groundbreaking study of powwow culture that investigates how the Ho-Chunk people create cultural value through their public ceremonial performances, the significance that dance culture provides for the acquisition of power and recognition inside and outside their communities, and how the Ho-Chunk people generate concepts of the self and their society through dancing.

Excerpt

One day in early March 1939 Mitchell Redcloud, the author of a column titled “Smoke Signals” published each week in the Banner-Journal newspaper of Black River Falls, Wisconsin, noted the irony of the current moment in modern history from his perspective as an American Indian from the local Indigenous people, the Ho-Chunk Nation: “The Indians of earlier times fought for their rights as rightful owners of this country and were called savages. Today men fight for greed, power, and wealth through means of aggression, oppression, and tricks of the law, and this current existence is called Advanced Civilization.” He wrote in the wake of the Great Depression and on the brink of World War ii, just a few months before the German literary critic Walter Benjamin composed his “Theses on History,” in which he depicted an “Angel of History” looking back at the results of the chain of events making up modernity to see not evidence of Progress but only the debris piled up by a disastrous storm. Both men used the contemporary disorder as a chance to call into question the equation of the current world with the ends of Civilization, Benjamin as a contribution to critical theory, Redcloud in seeking to give voice to the experiences of his community, who were only then, in the 1930s, beginning to rebuild after a century of catastrophe and ruin. While the angel imagined by Benjamin saw the violence hidden in European progress clearly because he flew facing backward, Indigenous people like Redcloud and his contemporaries had to face forward, into the oncoming storm, combining their inheritance from the past with their hopes for the future.

Although by 1939 the storm facing the Ho-Chunk Nation had been raging for centuries, it had shaped only a small part of Ho-Chunk his-

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