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Cultural celebration steeped in tradition; 17th Annual Little Elk's Retreat Powwow set

Scott Csernyik

8/2/2001 12:00:00 AM

The late Eli Thomas, also known as the ceremonial Chief Little Elk, is remembered and regarded as one of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe's most revered cultural and spiritual leaders. His vision of having a gathering on the Isabella Reservation began many years ago with hosting the fall Strawberry Festivals. At the Strawberry Festival, he would play his hand drum and have his family and friends dance. For years during the summer months, Chief Little Elk also conducted mini-powwows at Zubler's Indian Craft of Houghton lake.

It's viewed as a time to share in the traditions of the people and also an opportunity to honor of the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe's most respected cultural leaders.

The 17th Annual Little Elk's Retreat Powwow is scheduled for Aug. 3-5 at the Saginaw Chippewa Campgrounds.

Eli Thomas, also known as the ceremonial Chief Little Elk, carried with him a vast knowledge of traditional religious and medicinal practices.

He died at the age of 92, shortly after attending the Tribe's sixth annual powwow in 1990. Besides utilizing and teaching the Ojibwe language, Chief Little Elk was also a respected craftsman.

Long before the Isabella Reservation conducted an annual powwow, Chief Little Elk recognized the importance of sharing in one's culture.

From the days of the fall Strawberry Festival to the mini-powwows at a Houghton Lake tourist attraction for over four decades, the traditional visionary believed in helping educate Native and non-Natives alike.

"Honoring Our Tribal Chiefs Past and Present" is the theme for this year's powwow. Grand Entry times will be 7 p.m. on Friday, noon and 7 p.m. on Saturday, as well as noon on Sunday. The event will also include dance, drum and princess contests.

"We chose this theme, because we never did anything like that for the past 16 years," explained Powwow Committee Chairperson Mary Perez. "We've done it to honor certain people, but we've never included everyone. We figured every chief had to have done at least one good thing."

The setting for the powwow already encompasses memories of past leaders, according to Perez.

"It's a historical site," she stated. "Our ancestors sat on those grounds and had picnics. That's where they gathered. That's why we like to keep the powwow up there, because that's where people gathered for church and powwow and there weren't any clashes."