Q: In an effort to break the boredom of being confined to home, we decided to take a drive around Mankato yesterday and wandered through Land of Memories Park. When we came to the site of the annual powwow, we noticed the new structure and had heard the four main sections represent the four directions. Does each color coincide with a specific direction? Is there a significance about the colors used? Are the four main sections oriented N, S, E, and W? Is the placement in the park of any significance?
A: With Ask Us Guy off for the week, Stand-in Ask Us Guy turned to Dave Braveheart for answers. Braveheart is involved with coordinating the powwow and one of the movers behind getting the arbor built. (Some call the structure a canopy, which Braveheart says is fine, but the Dakota favor the term “arbor” for the circular structure.)
The colors and directions do, indeed, hold a lot of meaning.
“What you’re asking is a big question. There are a lot of teachings about it.” He said the Mahkato Mdewakanton Association, which organizes the long-standing annual powwow, wants to sometime put a plaque out providing information on some of the symbolism.
“Each tribal nation had their colors. These colors are particularly embraced by the Dakota and Lakota tribes. They symbolize the four directions: Black starts in the west, red north, yellow east and white to the south.”
He said different tribal nations have some variation in the order of the colors and some have more colors, including blue and green.
The black to the west, he said, represents introspection. “Going within to assess one’s self, one’s life. When we become introspective, that’s a good thing.”
The west also represents “thunder beings,” a spirit of thunder and lightning. “When they come back in the spring from the west, everything starts to grow. Thunder beings bring life to people and all life.”
The red to the north represents wisdom. “Wisdom is a very important part of our teaching, especially from our elders. You can’t have a good life without wisdom.”
Yellow is a nod to the sun coming up in the east. “With illumination we’re able to see the good things in people and life. We’re in light. To understand the natural world and God’s creation and power and living in harmony and balance.”
The white to the south is trust and innocence. “We also look at that direction as where our ancestors traveled when they passed on to the spirit world,” he said. “You’re standing in the direction of innocence and trust.”
Braveheart said the four directions and colors can also symbolize the four races: the black and white races, red for Native Americans and yellow for Asian. “No one is excluded in that circle of life. No one is stronger than another. Everyone is equal.”
Like any group’s beliefs and spiritual system, the four colors and directions have a much more complex history than the abbreviated version given here.
As for the reader’s question about the orientation, the four entrances to the arbor are facing toward each of the four directions.
As for placement, the arbor is located where the powwow ceremonies have always been held. The location of the park itself holds all sorts of meaning for the Dakota.
Where the Blue Earth River meets the Minnesota River was for centuries the meeting place for Native Americans to gather and trade with other tribal nations.
“Tribal people always gathered along the rivers,” Braveheart said.
He said the place where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers meet also hold special meaning. “That’s where our creation story starts. There’s a connection to the waterways and rivers.”
Braveheart said most powwows around the country have some type of arbor structure and he’s happy there is a permanent one here, not just for all its symbolism but for its practical purpose as well.
The canopy protects observers and powwow participants from the sun. “We will add some banners on the arbor poles, especially to the southwest to give people shade at sunset.”
Unfortunately, people likely won’t be able to enjoy the arbor or powwow this fall. While no official decision has been announced, Braveheart said they will likely have to cancel the event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tim Krohn is Stand-in Ask Us Guy. Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org; put Ask Us in the subject line.