CMN discovers gems from the past

College re-creating Woodland Bowl pageant
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Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Bruce Wilber, grandson of “Gems of Yesteryear” writer/director James Frechette, gives a monologue during a rehearsal Thursday at the College of Menominee Nation. Wilber will be narrating the pageant, the same as his grandfather did in 1954.

Leader Photo by Lee Pulaski Lloyd Frieson, who will be playing Tecumseh in “Gems of Yesteryear,” records some dialogue Thursday in the digital media lab at the College of Menominee Nation. The dialogue will be played during the pageant performance on Aug. 3, with the actors pantomiming to tell the story.

A Menominee Nation tradition is returning to the grounds of the Woodland Bowl in Keshena, 80 years after its construction.

The College of Menominee Nation will re-create an original pageant that debuted in 1954 as part of the 50th anniversary celebration of the Menominee Nation Contest Powwow. The show begins at dusk on Aug. 3.

Although the Woodland Bowl now mainly serves as the site of Menominee powwows, the arena was built in 1937 as a theatrical facility, according to Ryan Winn, CMN English and theater professor.

A group called the Pageant Players Guild formed to produce shows called the Menominee Pageants, which were held annually until the 1960s, Winn said, when the federal government terminated the Menominee’s recognized status as a tribe.

“They were an exhibition of the traditional Menominee stories, mostly histories, as well as the dances and the music that were common,” Winn said. “Originally when they started, they corresponded with the Keshena Fair, so they’d have all these non-native tourists there, and they would put on these as a way to entertain the crowd and celebrate their culture.”

The 1954 pageant, titled “The Gems of Yesteryear,” collected scenes from the guild’s previous pageants. One of the scenes re-creates the moment when the Menominee encountered the French, while other scenes depict other moments of tribal history, Winn said.

“That history has been forgotten, or it has gone largely unknown,” he said. “This play talks about the important moments in history.”

The pageant also showcases the dances of the time period and explains what they mean culturally. Winn noted that many dances, such as the Dance of Welcome, the Friendship Dance and the Snake Dance, to name a few, are still practiced today, but there was one dance, the Green Corn Dance, that is not practiced as much today and required him to do a lot of research.

Winn liked the 1954 pageant script, written by the late James Frechette, because of the references to previous pageants being intertwined with the current events of the day. The termination of the tribe’s status was approved by Congress in 1954 but did not take effect until 1961, and “Gems of Yesteryear” addressed the changes that were forthcoming as a result of the tribe’s federal termination and the formation of Menominee County.

“Termination was detrimental to all art and all of Menominee culture at that point in history because it changed everything,” Winn said. “You went from a self-sustaining tribe to one that had their hospital shut down and paying for their own BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) agents.”

Winn was asked in 2011 to come up with the re-creation of a traditional Menominee pageant, but when he tried to research past pageants, he was only able to find one complete script and another that was about 80 percent complete.

Frechette’s daughter, Grace Wilbur, had the original script her father had typed, and she shared it with Winn after learning about his project.

“She gave the original copy of his typed script to the college for us to use,” Winn said. “We have the original script and the director’s notes, written by hand.”

The only addition to the new show will be narration telling who played a certain part in 1954 and who will be performing it Aug. 3.

Although the script and director’s notes were intact, it took a lot of research and interviews to ensure the stage was re-created correctly. Winn held community meetings and interviewed tribal members who remember the pageant era.

“I would get invited to people’s homes to discuss it, or I’d get an email here and there. I’d find newspaper articles,” Winn said.

Winn also had to find speakers of the traditional Menominee language to fill in some gaps in the script.

Written in English, the script indicated when passages would need to be spoken in Menominee, but the Menominee passages were not in the script. In the 1950s, most Menominee still spoke the language fluently, so there was no need to put in the Menominee words, Winn said. Today, however, fewer Menominee speak the language.

Menominee pageants were a mixture of pantomiming, live music and dancing, and Winn said the 2016 show will be the same. The show’s oration will be recorded, enhanced with sound effects, and then performed with the actors speaking their lines along with the recorded track.

Although the pageant begins at dusk, the audience will be treated to recordings made by members of the original Pageant Players Guild beginning at 6:30 p.m. The show lasts two hours, with an intermission during which patrons can purchase food and beverages.

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Re-creation of the 1954 “Gems of Yesteryear” Menominee pageant

WHEN: Dusk, Aug. 3

WHERE: Woodland Bowl, Keshena

ADMISSION: Free

FYI: All dancers are welcome to join the production on the night of the show, but should check in with the lead dancers Thomas Pecore and Jamie Awonohopay prior to the show.