Monday, July 30, 2012

Copper Country Heritage

Once every summer one of the most unique and inspiring events happens in the Keweenaw Peninsula: the Baraga Powwow. This preservation of Ojibwa Native American culture is an incredible event for a couple of reasons: 1) it brings in thousands of people each year to the summer beauty of the Keweenaw and 2) it displays the fortitude of a people in the struggle to preserve their heritage, sometimes against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Before Europeans arrived in the Keweenaw searching for copper wealth, Native Americans occupied this beautiful and rugged land. Displaced as a result of the rush for copper, Native Americans were treated as second class citizens and placed in two government settlements on each side of Keweenaw Bay. These "reservations" included a "White" school at Assinins, where there was also an orphanage founded by Father Baraga, the Snowshoe Priest. Native American as well as "White" children were housed in the orphanage.

The Ojibwa people today, as part of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, carry on the cultural practices of their elders, and this ethic of cultural preservation is an amazing representation of what a subjugated people can do to maintain their heritage. The Baraga Powwow is a testament to the power of place and the perseverance of a people to preserve and protect their heritage and culture.

Working class Americans, of all backgrounds, can look to the great efforts of the Ojibwa people of Keweenaw Bay to preserve and protect the positive and powerful practices of culture. Too often working class culture is portrayed in less-than flattering ways. Often times working class "folks" are portrayed as buffoonish and unintelligent. This is not an accurate portrayal and one that is used by cultural elites in media and society to keep working class people in their place, while selling life-styles and products that are seen as somehow superior to working class realities.

A good critical examination of this phenomenon is the Class Dismissed documentary. A link to the first part of the two part documentary:

While I think much of the documentary is right on, it has a perspective that somewhat mitigates the message. The "expert" analysis of working class media is done solely by academics in the university. Where are the working class voices outside of the academy? There is no examination of the topic by people outside of the university, and this is especially problematic, maybe ironic, in a media product examining how working class people are portrayed in the media...why not include a woman on the factory floor or a fry cook at McDonalds in the commentary?

Despite this shortcoming, the documentary does raise interesting questions about working class culture and heritage. In many ways media creates the stereotypes by which we think about our "working class," and this is a tragic mistake because media, and especially broadcast media, is owned and run by the very people that want to keep working class folks in their place.

The control of culture and heritage by outside entities is a vicious circle for certain, but one that Native Americans at Keweenaw Bay are effectively addressing in hosting such a great event as the Baraga Powwow.      

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