Santee powwow brings back great memories

A young shawl dancer performers near some jingle dancers at the Santee Wacipi.

The older you get, the more sentimental and nostalgic you become. That was likely part of the reason for my wanting to attend the Santee powwow on the reservation in northeast Nebraska. I remember attending as a kid. It’s been well over 25 years since I last attended a powwow on my tribe’s land.

Historically, the Isanti Dakotah (Santee Sioux) were not from Nebraska. They were among the last tribes to surrender to the federal government. Thousands of Dakotas were held as prisoners at Fort Snelling near today’s Twin Cities.

Following the battle near New Ulm, Minnesota, 38 Dakotas were hanged in Mankato – some who participated in the battle and some who didn’t. Later, two more were captured and hanged. As the MC said during the powwow, they are referred to as the “38 + 2.”

My grandparents on my father’s side lived on the rez, as Natives refer to reservation life. I’m named after Grandpa Trudell. We share the same first name – William (my mom chose to call me by my middle name). Grandpa passed away when I was two years old, so I never got to know him. Grandma Mabel was a lovely woman. She provided my siblings and me with lots of great memories.

I recall having to use an outhouse during our visits to the old run down house. You never wanted to go outside in the middle of the night during the heat of summer. You’d never know what might be out there waiting for you. Rattlesnakes are not uncommon in the area, plus the other creatures that like to roam at night.

Grandma Trudell

She had an old stove that used firewood to create the flames to cook with. Her old iron pan could create some delicious food. 

One of my fondest memories was – as a kid of 6 or 7 – listening to her talk to a neighbor in their native tongue, the language of the people before the government forced the tribe from teaching their young. I regret not learning the language as a kid, but it wasn’t a big deal back then. I’m envious of my brother Roger as he rattles off the traditional language as he talks publicly.

I remember how the houses were scattered around the reservation. Walking from Grandma’s place to Gibbs’ general store was an adventure. You’d start off walking on a sandy road. After about a quarter of a mile, you’d turn and walk on a gravel road until you reached the highway. Then, you’d walk another mile to the store. Gibbs was an all-everything place – gas station, bar, grocery store, cafe and and resort office. All this in a building maybe the size of a two-car garage.

All of those memories come rushing back as we top the last hill on the only paved road into Santee. I know it’s near powwow time, as you see the cars and trucks turning off the road onto a dirt road, deep with tire ruts.

As the dancers prepare to enter during Grand Entry, the MC details how this very spot marked the tribe’s arrival to its new home. The Santee were forcibly moved from Minnesota by way of Fort Snelling to the Crow Creek reservation on to Santee, where we’ve been since the 1860s.

Veterans lead the dancers, following closely behind the eagle staff. The eagle staff is important and sacred for the tribe. Military service is important and honorable among Native Americans, something you might not expect based on the historic treatment Native Americans have received by government.

Veterans present the flags during the Grand Entry.

We watched with pride and amazement at the pageantry that goes into each powwow. Dancers create their outfits with reverence to their tribes, clans and history. Dancers look for the perfect colors and accessories to highlight their clothing.

The dances vary, but each is beautiful to watch and tell a story – grass, fancy, shawl, traditional, jingle. Dancers compete for prize money, as well as pride and comraderie.

A young dancer participates in the Grand Entry.

Dancers range in age from the very young to the very old. I can’t dance a lick to any music. I was once told I dance like an old boxer in the ring. Later, it was pointed out that maybe I dance like a traditional dancer at a powwow. Who knows?

A dancer performs during the ISanti Wacipi (powwow).

As we enjoyed our time at the powwow, I grew eager to check out some of the places I hung out as a kid. I’ve been to Santee – about 3 hours northwest of Omaha –  a few times over the years, but didn’t really take the time to show Lisa the places like I wanted.

The apartment my grandma lived in during her last years on the reservation is still there. I remember spending a couple of weeks there one summer. As I grew older, I stopped spending much time there. I miss Grandma’s smell, her old clothing, quilts and rocking chair.

My grandma’s apartment after moving from the old house.

We visited my favorite fishing spot along the Missouri River. I remember walking down from her place or my brother Roger’s and doing some fishing. It’s different now, reinforced against erosion. Lots of sportsmen use the spot to load their boats into the water.

This was one of my favorite spots to fish from as a youngster during my visits to the reservation.

The old Episcopal church still stands. It’s a bit worn, as well.

Today, Santee is more than just a reservation. It’s a town, with businesses, a school, community center and homes. lots of homes, some built in the 1970s and others more recently dot the landscape where once we walked and played as kids. I’m proud of the work the young men and women started during the early ’70s (including my brother, Roger). They worked to win grants and funding to build up the area.

A 1970s project brought Santee new houses. Today, the community is home to businesses and more.

As we left for home later in the day, we stopped by the tribe’s casino. Casino gambling isn’t allowed in Nebraska, so the forms of games allowed in the state are played there. It’s a small casino, about the size of your typical keno parlor.  A small hotel is attached.

Santee’s local casino. It offers electronic game versions of bingo.

I had a great time visiting the reservation. The memories are wonderful things to have. Being able to share them with Lisa were an added plus. I need to make sure to return sooner to take in the beauty of Santee and northeastern Nebraska.