Pageant Players take audience back to onakow

Last month, the Menominee Pageant Players brought the Native American Tourism of Wisconsin Conference attendees to their feet. At the event in Keshena, the group concluded their presentation as they do every show — with an intertribal dance that they invite everyone to partake in.

The 2023 conference ran from June 20-22, and it featured events ranging from traditional storytelling and crafts to business and partnership building. NATOW’s mission is “to promote tribal tourism and economic development, while highlighting the beauty, diversity and cultural dynamism of the 11 federally recognized tribes of Wisconsin.”

The organization notes that “Tourism is the leading industry in tribal economies and plays a critical role in generating employment and revenues for essential governmental services for tribes and their members.” The conference was a chance to highlight some of the events that each tribe promotes.

One of the events highlighted was the Menominee Pageant, held annually in the tribe’s famed Woodland Bowl in Keshena. From 1937 to the 1970s, the Menominee people staged their theater tradition that mixes audio recordings and pantomime with live drumming, singing and dancing. The shows highlighted Menominee history and cultural teachings through performance, and they drew spectators from throughout the nation.

Since 2016, the College of Menominee Nation has honored an elder’s request to revive this traditional art form. The producers of the show range from CMN staff to community members, the core of which make up the Pageant Players Guild. Having heard of the annual production’s success, NATOW booked the Pageant Players for an after-dinner presentation.

Beginning with an overview, the presentation shared documents of “oration” being a part of Menominee tourism that dates back to at least 1878. Further, the Woodland Bowl amphitheater has been recognized as a performance space for more than 100 years. In 1937, the Menominee people staged the first pageant for the “tin can tourists” who parked their campers on tribal land. News of the inaugural event spanned the country, including a story from Florida’s Sarasota Herald, which called the gathering “a good time.”

The reason for the NATOW address was to promote the forthcoming pageant. At 9 p.m. Aug. 2, the group will stage a new script titled “Onākow,” which is the Menominee word for yesterday. The show’s billing states, “Combining scenes from classic pageants with new work celebrating Restoration, ‘Onākow’ showcases how Menominee values both guided the ancestors and continue to inspire their descendants.”

After the presentation and a video invitation to attend the August show, the Pageant Players took to the stage in their regalia. Shannon Wilber then addressed the crowd on the group’s behalf.

Wilber said: “The pageants have allowed many opportunities to be grateful and proud of our culture and to realize how far our people have come, but the greatest reward is when you give of yourself. It is about bettering the lives of others, being part of something bigger than yourself and making a positive difference.”

Wilber then cued the Wolf River Singers and they started an intertribal song. Wilber said to the NATOW participants, “We welcome you all to join us, just like we do to end our pageant performances.”

With the beat of the drum, many of those assembled left their chairs behind for the chance to participate in the song. Among those who joined in was Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Anne Sayers, as well as tribal leaders from throughout the Badger State.

After the song ended, Menominee pageant veteran Ron Bowan Sr. approached the group and thanked them for their work.

“Having been a part of these shows in the past, tonight meant so much to me,” Bowan said.

The other attendees seemed to echo their approval, as they asked for photos with the Pageant Players.

While the 2023 NATOW conference got a look at “Onākow,” the hope is that tourists from throughout the state will join in the fun during the full production this August.

Ryan Winn teaches communications, English and theater at the College of Menominee Nation. Visit www.menominee.edu for more information about the school.

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