Tradition goes to court Archives, March 2002

The Sweetgrass Road Drum Group raised money, hocked belongings, strapped the baby in the car and took an eight-hour drive from Winnipeg to St. Paul, Minnesota to sing at the 13th annual St. Thomas Powwow.

The result of that trip is a civil complaint against the university where the powwow was held, and a debate about whether women should be allowed to sing at the drum.

On March 11, a U.S. court will hear arguments to decide if the civil complaint against the University of St. Thomas should go forward. The complaint alleges that discrimination occurred under the Minnesota Human Rights Act because St. Thomas denied the women's drum group, "full and equal enjoyment of its services, facilities, privileges and advantages because of their sex" when organizers of the powwow told the women they could not participate.

The Sweetgrass Road Drum Group, made up of Raven Hart-Bellecourt, Linell and Shanolyn Maytwayashing, Carie Okemow, and Tammy and Tara Campeau, is relatively new, two years in the making. The group was given a drum and songs by Ojibway Elder Neil Hall, and the women have traveled throughout North America singing.

In 2000, when the group was called the White Turtle Women Singers, the women sang at the St. Thomas powwow without incident. They say it was a much different story in 2001.

Sweetgrass registered their drum on Friday, Nov. 2, 2001 and arrived the next morning to set up in the St. Thomas Fieldhouse. The competition powwow is intertribal and open to the public.

"Upon registering, we were told we may not be able to sing," said Hart-Bellecourt, 25, born on the White Earth Reservation in Detroit Lakes, Minn. She has lived most of her life in Winnipeg and is currently taking a break from her studies in business administration to raise her nine-month-old son, Freedom.

"I talked to the emcee. He said 'register, set up and sit down.' So we did."

After setting up, Hart-Bellecourt said St. Thomas powwow committee member Leroy Strong approached them. He told the women they wouldn't be allowed to sing because the powwow committee was following the Woodlands policy of not allowing women to sing at the drum.

Hart-Bellecourt said she asked for a specific teaching supporting that policy.

"He couldn't tell us what the Woodland policy was, but he said he supported us," she said.

Hart-Bellecourt said she was told the decision came from the other powwow committee members. (When asked for comment, the committee members refused on the advice of their lawyer.)

Hart-Bellecourt said another powwow committee member approached and explained that though he was a non-Native, he followed the Sioux tradition.

She asked for a specific explanation of the Souix teaching that excluded women from singing at the drum and, again, got none.

"We're Cree and Ojibway," said Hart-Bellecourt. "We got our teachings from an Elder who is part of the Woodlands tradition. His teachings came from his grandfathers.

"[The committee] not only told us not to sing, but to pack up our drum and leave. They then offered us [$130] to leave."

The women stayed.

In December 2001, the drum group's attorney, Jordan Kushner, filed the civil complaint alleging discrimination in an educational institution. Tradition or not, the women allege they were denied their rights in a public facility open to the public.

St. Thomas, a private Catholic college with a relatively small Native American student population, filed a motion to have the complaint dismissed on the basis of the First Amendment: free speech and freedom of religion.

"We believe this is a spiritual event covered by the First Amendment," said St. Thomas' attorney, Phyllis Karasov. "Native Americans planned this event and they should be allowed to decide how to run it. That it's a public place is irrelevant," Karasov said.

Kushner disagrees.

"It's not a religious event. It's a cultural event. It's a competition powwow; giving money for things doesn't fit."

The lawyer also expressed concern that a non-Native was making decisions regarding tradition.

"It's a political decision by a white guy. Who did they consult with to make this decision? It's not valid. There's no explanation. It's not a religious event," the lawyer said. "The bottom line at this point is, it's a St. Thomas event. They can't do something under their name and property that discriminates. There's no doubt they weren't allowed to play because they're women."

Kushner said the hope is that consciousness will be raised so this won't happen again.

"We're very limited to making them change policy. [The judge] can court-order them to not do it again and/or award damages."

Hart-Bellecourt said her wish is that the group be invited back and women be allowed to sing at the drum at future St. Thomas powwows.

But the dispute isn't limited to the lawsuit. Bring up the question of women and singing at the drum in the Native American community and the reactions are strong.

"It's tradition" and "It's just not done that way" were the sentiments voiced by a number of people surveyed.

While there are tribes that allow women to sing at the drum, there is also the wide belief that women are too powerful to be at the drum or touch the drumsticks, especially during their moon. It is, however, acceptable, for women to sing, standing behind the male singers or while using hand drums. One Elder remarked that there are songs that are not to be sung by women and that that is being abused today.

Hart-Bellecourt believes that tradition is not static.

"I think a lot of people are ignorant. What we need today is not what was needed then. I think this is a clear case of discrimination because if it was tradition, what is a non-Aboriginal doing running the powwow and non-Aboriginal dancers wearing eagle feathers. It's okay to dance for money, but it's not okay or you to sing because you're a woman? I don't see it having anything to do with tradition. It's ignorance," she said.

Vernon Bellecourt, a Native American activist, said he raised his daughter "to fight back if she feels it's wrong."

"The powwows are new, about 50 years old, not the way you know them today. Their purpose was to honor soldiers returning from war. The general consensus now is, make it up as you go along," he said. "They'll be hard pressed to prove it in the court system that it's their religious conviction to not allow women to sing at the drum. Women are allowed to sing at the drum."

Patricia Albers, head of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota, has researched and written about powwows in collaboration with noted author Beatrice Medicine. She said powwows have flourished since the 1960s as an amalgamation of traditional celebrations and the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows.

"The university setting is another variant in the powwow tradition, which typically doesn't follow the rigors of tradition," she said.

Wallace Coffey, former chairman of Commanche Tribe of Oklahoma, esteemed speaker and well-known powwow emcee, is cultural resource specialist at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Sante Fe.

"There has always been a history of women singers. I was the emcee at Hinckley [Minnesota powwow] when [Sweetgrass] sang there. We've made major changes in Indian country. There are female emcees and arena directors, which are normally male duties. Maybe those times have changed," he said.

It's acknowledged, however, that had the powwow been held on a reservation, rather than at a college in the middle of a large city, there wouldn't be an issue.

"I regret that we don't have a forum for this decision to be made by Native Americans; like a Supreme Court. If this would have happened on the reservation, [the group] would have respected that. You have to be bound by that decision," said Bellecourt.

Hart-Bellecourt ultimately sees her singing as a way to involve and teach the youth.

"We come from a generation of abuse. We're trying to hold on to the little bit we have left. A lot of the girls cried they were so hurt. There used to not be women fancy shawl dancers, now there are many. Now we're lawyers, doctors, performers. We have to welcome change, especially if it's positive. They were judgmental. They say 'that's not the Indian way,' but [being judgmental is] not the Indian way!" she said. "If the men are so against us singing, maybe they should take more of a responsibility and teach our children—don't criticize. This is for our children and we're not going to let anybody stop us."

Ed McGaa, [Eagle Man-Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota] is a noted author, historian and has studied under Sioux holy men Chief Eagle Feather and Chief Fool's Crow and is a long-time sun dancer.

"Balance. Start with balance or forget about it. Northern Native American people did not need a written bible and had none. Their great mysteries were found in their natural surroundings for thousands of years. In other words, they observed Creator's creation [nature] for their spiritual, religious guidance. They formulated their beliefs from what they directly observed."

He said, "if you want to claim yourself as Indian traditionalists, as Northern Indians, you do not pick up a man-written book and put it before Creator's nature."

McGaa explained that democracy came from the Iroquois, not from Greece or Rome. He said that in nature you see pure democracy, equality and balance among the four-legged.

"All are equal. This is the basis of how we should make our decisions . . .the basis of our religion is balance, equality and democracy as perceived through benevolent Creator's creation. This is our guide for problems that may arise. This is our supreme guide," said McGaa.

Letters to the Editor in Response in response to this story

Re: Tradition goes to court was published in the March 2002 edition of Windspeaker).

Dear Editor:

It disturbs me to see the opinions of these women. There was a time when singers and dancers were initiated into the powwow circuit. Parents and family would save for a year for a give away. Elders would counsel the initiates.

I suspect this is not commonly practiced protocol any more. I was given a drum as a young woman, but do not play it. I have my teachings, and no court will force me to divulge those teachings to people who don't respect them.

We as Native people once had a position of honor for Elders, traditions and women. We did not have to question this because the knowledge came from sources wiser than our limited human understanding.

The need to challenge, question and have the same duties as men is a colonizer's view. Whether it is a competition powwow for money or not, these women were not taught the respect and power of the spirit of that drum. In my heart I am sad for these women because they will be reprimanded for their disrespect, even if they win in court.

Leta Houle

Dear Editor:

I am writing to talk about Sweetgrass Road Drum Group and other women's drum groups. As for myself, I sing with the Sunrise Singers. I was hurt and upset at the same time when I read about the happening at the powwow at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn. I feel that things went a little too far, and this would have not happened if the girls would have just left when they were asked to.

I know how bad it feels not to be wanted somewhere, especially if you worked really hard to get where you are at. It hurts a lot and you feel no one sees all the good that is being done for our youth and for our people when the women drum. But we, the women drum groups, have to understand we have to show respect and understand different tribes/First Nation teachings.

We, as Ojibwe people are not the only ones with teachings about women drumming with the grandfather drum. We are not the only tribe on our Mother Earth. There are many and we have to understand that. We can't make people want us to sing with our grandfather drum at a powwow.

It is not us that make it happen. It's the people's choice. Today teachings are very different from long ago, and there are still people who understand and are following the original teachings and when we do come across these people, the highest respect has to be shown.

As women drummers, we have a lot of responsibility we voluntarily accept, and we must be strong and believe in what we do, and to never disrespect other people's teachings. Our teachings are strong, sacred and from Nation to Nation different, but still lead to the same Creator. A strong Elder from our reserve in North Eastern Ontario spoke to us about that big drum, and how she would like to see us drum and to never stop. I will continue drumming till the day I leave this world and go to the spirit world, and I will keep using that big drum. It is like my child. I care, speak and sing with the grandfather drum. That Elder also said, "you will run into people with different teachings. Show great respect for them, for they are speaking their minds. If they ask you to leave when you are at a powwow, tell them what you believe in. If they still don't want you there, put your big drum away. Speak to it, pray with it, and humbly explain why you are putting him away and then take out your hand drums, and start singing for your people.

I know for a fact, we female drummers have to work really hard to get where we are at, and we feel we have to help the youth change their ways of doing such as drinking, doing drugs. And by drumming, it helps us so much to be the people we always wanted to be; to be sober and clean.

So in closing, I pray and show huge respect for all the women drum groups out there. You will make it, and maybe soon things will change about women using the grandfather drum, however respect to your Elders and hat people have to say about us women drumming. Why should we ask the white courts to decide our traditions, since they have always tried to take all things from us.

Samaria Ineese

Constance Lake First Nation

Dear Editor:

After discussing this we are having a hard time understanding what has happened to women's positions within Native societies that would allow young Native women to stray as far from their culture as the women featured have.

My understanding has a lot to do with the spiritual energies that women encounter in their monthly cycle, which can easily kill the spirit of the drum. How then could the spiritual message of the songs be sent with no spirit?

Frankly, I'm appalled to hear of an instance where people are going to use written laws to challenge those not written, but are kept in oral tradition. These people want answers, and the court won't find those answers for them.

The Ojibwe Elder who gave these women the drum, and the right to use it is sketchy because in other Ojibwe traditions the power of a woman in her time is still honored. These are the type of detractors the Elders warned us about in prophecy. For if they plan to sing at future events, there will need to be mutual respect. And I am afraid that venturing down the road of written law in the opposition of tradition can be spiritually damaging.

Dale Saddleback