DUNSEITH The powwow arbor here could possibly be described as being the unsung hero of the celebrations.
Amidst the dancers in their colorful regalia and the drummers with their mournful or joyous songs, the arbor stands as an inatimate object. The Little Shell powwow arbor, the large large wooden circular arena located on the northern edge of Dunseith, is the venue, the stage for these celebrations and festivities.
Roger Cree, of New Town, explained that up until the 1970s, "we couldn't do any of that," such as powwows, sweat lodges and other religious practices found in the Native American culture. In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to protect and allow the freedoms to practice traditional religious rights and cultural practices. Once this law was passed, Cree said, his grandfather, Francis Cree and great-uncle Louis Cree, along with James Greatwalker, got together and decided to build the arbor in order to "keep the culture alive."
Workers take apart the powwow arbor located at the Little Shell Powwow grounds, north of Dunseith. The arbor, originally built in 1985, was recently renovated and expanded. The Little Shell NiiMiiWin Powwow will be held this weekend, August 13-15.
During the summer of 1985, for about three months, the arbor was constructed with help from members of the Cree family, as well as other community members. Even before this arbor was constructed, events like powwows were going on in the community, Cree added.
"We used to have them years ago just gatherings, getting together, really," Cree said. "They weren't big like they are today."
Before this arbor was originally built, these gatherings were held in different towns, including north of Dunseith, where the Garden Gate Golf Course is located. There, there was an arbor that measured 40 feet around, Cree said.
The arbor that the Crees built has served the community well as the center of gatherings of fellowship and the preservation of a cultural society.
Three months ago, this arbor was razed and slowly reconstructed.
"The last time that our relatives put it together was 25 years ago. It was put up with materials that lasted its lifetime," explained Levi Baker, who assisted with the reconstruction. Baker is also the chairman of the Center of the Earth, a Dunseith-based organization that helps promote and preserve the Native culture.
The reconstruction process started 1 1/2 years ago with the fundraising. According to Baker, the $65,000 raised for the project came from the Northwest Area Foundation "so we'd like to thank them for everything we've done for out relatives and our visitors."
The new arbor is larger than its precessor, measuring at about 125 feet in diameter a stark contrast from the 40-foot arbor that Cree spoke of. The south side of the new arbor was expanded roughly 16 to 18 feet, Baker said.
"We used metal sheet roofing so we could have a nice roof that lasts a lifetime," Baker said, adding that he will be "90 or 100 (years old) when it needs repairs."
The arbor will serve as the venue for the upcoming Little Shell NiiMiiWin Powwow, not be confused with the New Town-based powwow of the same name, coincidentally held the same weekend Aug. 13-15. The powwow will be a combination of a contest and traditional powwow, Baker said.
In years past, the arbor was the setting for a few powwows, either traditional or contest; with economic restrictions, the two powwows were combined into one.
Despite these restrictions, the turnout at the powwows is still strong. "Every year, the (number of) people at the powwow keeps getting bigger and bigger," Baker said, estimating that at last year's powwow, there was "anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 over the weekend."
The renovations of the arbor is just the beginning when it comes to the preservation of culture, via powwows, in Dunseith.
"The thing we're looking for is exploring the options of having a few different powwows traditional and contests to bring in tourists and explore the culture we have here," Baker said.
The Little Shell powwow will coincide with Dunseith Days, a celebration in which residents of the small western Rolette County town gather and celebrate.