It starts with the beating of a drum.
Powwow dancers and singers feel that beat in their arms, legs and chest. They let the drum dictate their movements.
The drum is the heartbeat of the powwow, a celebration that joins together the traditional and modern cultures of American Indian communities. It also is the soundtrack to a new video produced by Wisconsin Media Lab, a state-funded agency charged with creating educational resources for public schools in the Great Lakes region.
The video, titled “Powwow Trail,” features Dylan Jennings, 21, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.
“It’s part of who I am,” Jennings said of powwows.
A singer with the drum group Midnite Express, Jennings spends his summers on a powwow circuit, crisscrossing the nation from California to New York. Much of the video was filmed at the Oneida Veterans Powwow.
“A powwow is a cultural event,” Jennings said. “It’s a festival, a celebration. We come together and celebrate life, friendships.”
Jennings, a junior studying anthropology and archeology at the University of Wisconsin, uses powwows to educate the younger generation about the importance of culture, language and Native community. The powwow itself can be an educational experience, especially when it comes to fighting stereotypes, he said.
“A lot of times we do these powwows to educate the people out there that don’t understand, that aren’t aware of the presences of Native Americans in the modern day,” Jennings said. “I was always taught that education is the key to help eliminate these stereotypes. If we can help educate people, that’s really good.”
The video is one of nine the Wisconsin Media Lab is producing as part of an online educational resource called “The Ways.” The project, which also includes interactive maps, classroom questions and essay prompts, aims to inform students in sixth through twelfth grades about contemporary American Indian issues.
The videos help fulfill Wisconsin Act 31, which requires public school teachers to expand and challenge the understanding of Native identity and communities, producer Finn Ryan said. Specifically, teachers are expected to discuss history, culture and sovereignty.
“There are more resources on history of the tribes in the area,” Ryan said. “There are not a lot on contemporary culture and language. There are a lot of students in Wisconsin who may live in proximity to Native communities but may still think of those communities in historical terms.”
Wisconsin is home to 11 tribes and bands; nine are featured in the video series. Four videos already are available online, and producers plan to have all nine completed and posted by the time school starts in the fall.
“Our idea behind this is to directly feature the voices of Native people so kids can learn that on more of a firsthand basis than reading a book written by someone else,” said Peggy Garties, executive producer at Wisconsin Media Lab. “We wanted to look at culture today and the juxtaposition between traditional culture and modern culture.”
The stories vary as much as the individuals they portray.
One provides a look at a Red Cliff Band family that has spent two decades fishing on Lake Superior.
Another follows a Menominee father as he schools his young daughter in his native language; she will be the first child in more than a generation whose first language is Menominee.
Another features a Native hip hop artist.
The goal, Ryan said, is to “share stories of contemporary language and culture that still honor historical values and traditions.”
Producers captured stories that reflect the diverse Native communities at many different levels. To accomplish this, producers rely heavily on a board of four advisors. Advisors helped identify stories and shape the context of the videos.
“We want to have students have an opportunity to understand current Native American identity and community,” said David O’Connor, an advisor and a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “A lot of people don’t know who we are because most of what’s out there is historical.”
Although the project was produced for classrooms, it is gaining popularity among the public, Ryan said.
“The general public is always kind of hungry for new content, so there is some good reception there,” he said.
The next video is scheduled to be released later this month.
To see what other educational materials are available visit TheWays.org.