Pageants an old tradition made new again

Ryan Winn

The Menominee word mamātāweqtan covers a range of performance arts. It can be translated as an “exhibition, circus, (or) theatrical performance.” The word begins to capture some of the storied history of Menominee tourism to the famed Woodland Bowl.

Since the 1800s, the natural amphitheater in Keshena has hosted showcases of Menominee culture. Tourists from throughout the United States traveled to Keshena to experience the Menominee Fair, dance exhibitions and the famed theater pageants. Running from 1937 to the 1970s, the pageant productions made local and national news due to the rich stories they presented.

In fall 2011, the late Gerald “Jerry” Sanapaw set me on a path that led to my role in the pageant’s revival. Sanapaw attended my office hours at College of Menominee Nation, regaled me with stories of yesteryear and asked if I could help bring the pageants back.

The key word is help. Since our first show in 2016, hundreds of Menominee have joined with others enthusiasts to stage the shows that are once again a part of the nation’s late summer hospitality. Thousands have enjoyed our shows, affirming the timeless resonance of Menominee values.

Menominee pageants are a combination of recorded dialogue, sound effects, pantomime and live drums, singing and dancing. We use industry-leading light and sound technology to enhance our show, illuminating the enduring power of Menominee culture and the joy in which it is perpetuated.

This July will witness our seventh live show, but it will be a special one for me. Thirteen years after Sanapaw made his request to me, the culmination of my research, interviews and requests for patient guidance has resulted in the earning of a Ph.D. in Indigenous literature and cultural theory from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. While my dissertation on the Menominee pageants will soon be digitally available through that school, I’m using this column to give both thanks to those who’ve guided our work and ask others to join us in our endeavors.

First, I want to honor the veterans of pageants past. The late Petronell Martin instructed us to wait until sunset and not to move the productions from their intended performance space in the Woodland Bowl.

Leslie Teller shared that “the pageants themselves were a way to transmit cultural knowledge and history to the Wisconsin people and to our own people.”

The late Richie Plass closed our first revival shows with an eye on the original run he was a part of. He said, “Fifty years from now, they’ll be great, these young ones, carrying this on, and maybe even make new stories, make them their stories, and that’s what our culture is about. It’s forever changing as much as it is staying, as it was, where it was, how it was, but we have to honor that.”

The upshot is that Menominee values are evident in the theater written and performed by Menominee people and staged upon their ancestral homeland. That fact will always be true.

Next, I need to thank those who worked alongside us to make the shows a reality. First among them in Grace Corn, who is the matriarch of the revivals. Melinda Cook, Lloyd Frieson Jr., Bruce Wilber Jr., Shannon Wilber, Sabrina Hemken, Karen Ann Hoffman, Dawn Wilber, Daynell Grignon and Brian Marquardt are each invaluable members of our Pageant Players Guild. Our collective is open and inclusive, and I share this hoping that my words of gratitude are actually laying the groundwork for the extension of an invitation.

With the support of CMN, the Menominee Powwow Committee and the Wisconsin Arts Board, we will again stage a show the Wednesday before the Menominee Contest Powwow. Starting at 9 p.m. on July 31, the community is invited to witness one of our spectacular shows.

This is an open invitation to join us on stage, as we will hold auditions for voice actors, non-speaking roles and dancers at CMN at 5 p.m. June 5. The pageants have always been an inclusionary event, and we hope that potential cast and crew members will join us in creating another memorable show.

Mamātāweqtan has another definition — a “wonderful performance (or) feat.” Come join us as we create a mamātāweqtan.

Ryan Winn, Ph.D., teaches communications, English, history and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit for more information about the school.