Winnebago powwow: Fun time mixing history, dance and food

Winnebago powwow
Dancer during the Winnebago powwow

A fond childhood memory I have is visiting my grandma, then my brother, on the Santee reservation in northeast Nebraska. I occasionally got to spend a couple of weeks each summer there. Otherwise, our family would visit. We’d visit during powwow weekend. My brother Roger has long been a tribal leader and also involved with the annual powwow. I recall listening to Grandma Trudell visit with a neighbor in the Dakota language. They drank coffee and just talked. I remember thinking it was pretty neat that my grandma knew the native tongue.

So, Lisa and I try to attend a powwow each summer. The closest tribe to Omaha is the Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). The reservation is about a 75-minute drive from Omaha. It’s a good time to take in some good drum songs, dancing and, of course, a family favorite – the Indian Taco. Or, as my kids and I like say to say, “An Us taco.”

This particular visit included a trip into town. We visited an arts store in the Ho Chunk Plaza, a newer tribal business center. At one end of the plaza sits a memorial honoring the birth of the Ho Chunk and its clans (tribal lineage. Similar to family units).

Winnebago powwow
Honoring-the-Clans Sculpture Garden and Cultural Plaza

The Winnebago first appeared in northern Kentucky as early as 500 BC. They later migrated to the Wisconsin area. They were eventually relocated to northeast Nebraska.

The tribe has enjoyed some development success. Following a successful claim against the United States in the mid-1970s, the tribe used much of that money for land acquisition and development. Today, the Ho Chunk operate a multi-faceted business endeavor, with several successful investments.

Winnebago powwow
Eagle sculpture with Ho Chunk

The memorial seems to recognize the growth of the people. The Winnebago consist of 12 major clans – Thunder, Eagle, Hawk, Pigeon, Bear, Wolf, Water Spirit, Deer, Elk, Buffalo, Fish and Snake. By tradition, each clan had specific responsibilities in supporting the tribe.

Winnebago powwow
Mural of Winnebago history

The public art display didn’t end there. On the side of a Dollar general store, two murals highlight the history of the Winnebago. One shows life in the early days, with a father and his child looking on. In the next mural, the two look at Winnebago today and see the modern successes of the tribe.

Winnebago powwow
Looking at today’s Winnebago

After checking out some Native and non-Native artwork at the Woodland Trails center, we headed to the Winnebago powwow. One of my favorite times of a powwow is the Grand Entry, when all dancers parade and dance around the circle.

Winnebago powwow
Dream catcher at Woodland Trail art center

Winnebago honors its veterans during each powwow. The annual event is referred to as the Homecoming celebration. They celebrate the return of Chief Little Priest and the tribal scouts from military duty in 1866. Chief Little Priest died that year from wounds suffered during a battle.

Winnebago powwow
Elder dancer at powwow

The 149th annual Winnebago powwow kicked off with a wonderful Grand Entry. More than a hundred veterans and dancers filled the circle.

Winnebago powwow
Dancers at powwow

If you’ve never been to a powwow, you have no idea of the colors and pageantry you’re missing. Several dancers had vibrant, beautiful colors on their outfits.

You have a variety of dancers – traditional, grass, fancy, shawl, and many more. Drummers from tribes across the United States provided the music for dancers. Some dancers competed for awards in certain categories.

Winnebago powwow
Powwow dancers

Winnebago does an outstanding job in honoring veterans and active duty military. Military service is a highly respected profession among Native Americans. Based on history, you’d think otherwise. But, it’s an honor to serve the country in uniform.

Three veterans are selected to have the honor of carrying three eagle feather staffs. They led the parade of colors, including the United States flag, flags of the five military branches, POW/MIA and veteran organizations, including the VFW and American Legion.

Winnebago powwow
Veterans leading the Grand Entry

Following four songs to honor Chief Little Priest, drum groups played a song for each military branch.

Once the military veterans have been honored with song and dance, songs are played for the different types of dancers, including the shawl, tradition, grass and fancy.

Winnebago powwow

One thing you’ll notice at powwows is that everyone is encouraged to participate – dancers and non-dancers, Natives and non-Natives. You don’t have to wear an outfit to dance. I’m not a great dancer by any imagination, so I don’t dance. I have in the past, but I prefer to take in the great view of those honoring others with dance.

What I am good at, is eating an Indian Taco. Oh, they are so good. They’re basically taco ingredients on top of fry bread. But, they are popular with my entire family – sisters, brothers, kids, nieces and nephews. I can make them, and I even taught a young Native girl how to make them, but nothing I make comes close to a Powwow taco.

Winnebago powwow
NDN taco

We tried something new this year – chili cheese fry bread bites. They were good. I’d prefer a second taco to them, but I enjoyed ours.

Winnebago powwow
Fry bread bites

If you’re not in the mood for a taco (shame on you. I will judge a little), you can always try a HUGE turkey leg. I took one look and turned to Lisa, “How big are the turkeys those legs came off of?”

Winnebago powwow
Giant turkey legs

We met a mother and daughter duo from Wayne, Nebraska. They sat next to us. They had the turkey legs and grilled corn. I was a bit jealous of them, and they liked our selection. Next year, we will stay for the entire day. That way, I can get both options for meals.

Winnebago powwow
Grilled corn

We had a great time at the Winnebago powwow. We recommend attending. It only costs $5 to get in. Plus, if you are a vet or 55 or older, you get in for free. The 2016 powwow is slated for July 28-31.

For more information on the 2016 powwow or for area attractions, please visit

Winnebago powwow
Dancer watching festivities