Woodland Bowl ‘where they habitually dance’

Ryan Winn

‘S kew-nīmihaetuaq directly translates as “where they habitually dance.” The Menominee word for the natural amphitheater in Keshena carries a richer meaning than the English moniker — the Woodland Bowl. Yet, despite one’s preferred name, it’s what habitually happens in that space that resonates through the generations.

In 1878, the Menominee nation held their first fair in Keshena, which The Green Bay Advocate noted had a 14-by-20-foot tent erected “expressly for the display of fancy articles, of bead work, bed quilts, &c (sic).” Further, the tribe offered space for oration, as “Speeches were made by two Chiefs, the Catholic Priest, Farmers, and Mr. (Indian) Agent Bridgeman.” The paper summarized, “The exhibition was one that would be a credit to many countries, and was said by many to be far ahead of a good many fairs that they attended this fall.”

The gathering, christened the Keshena Fair, became an annual event in 1910, and in 1913, Chief Oshkosh’s son, Ernest, was named as the secretary of the fair. The Green Bay Press-Gazette quoted Ernest’s recognition that the site was “the beauty spot on the Menominee Reservation.” That year’s fair showcased the tribe’s “various games as sports, such as lacrosse, foot races, baseball, pagan dances, etc.,” which affirmed that the tribe was cementing their performances as an unwavering cultural practice to be showcased alongside the typical American fair festivities.

The 1920 Keshena Fair coverage is the first known reportage on the significance of the space that would later be christened the Woodland Bowl. The Press-Gazette stated that “All of the event (sic) were staged in a natural amphitheater. The grounds are shaped like a saucer with a deep arena in the center and the spectators grouped about on the slope of the arena.”

In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal sponsored an “all Indian crew” of the Civilian Conservation Corps to construct the formal seating for the Woodland Bowl. The tribe referred to the workers as “Wood ticks,” and the following year, the first Menominee Pageant was held before “Tin Can Tourists” who parked their campers at the fairgrounds.

The bowl was constructed as a staging ground for Menominee theater. Beginning in 1937, the group that became the Pageant Players Guild staged productions as the highlight of the Keshena Fair. These shows included pantomiming to prerecorded stories, live music and dancing, and a multitude of stage lighting and theatrics, but the stories themselves carried messages of Menominee wisdom, perseverance and diplomacy.

The pageants were so well received in their heyday that the Shawano Evening Leader recorded that each showing of the 1958 performance had about 1,200 patrons. Further, journalists from throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota and even Sarasota, Florida, carried news of the productions.

The last of the original shows was produced in the 1970s. In 2016, at the behest of Menominee elders, the College of Menominee Nation led a revival effort that continues to be part of the build-up to the Menominee Contest Powwow to this day. On Aug. 3, CMN staged “The Indian Drum” by Napoose (John “Mani” Boyd). Originally shown in 1967, this year’s revival performance attracted north of 1,000 spectators.

In contemporary times, the Woodland Bowl has come to be known colloquially as the Menominee Powwow Grounds, with this year’s gathering marking the 54th annual celebration. After COVID-19 canceled the previous two pageants and contest powwows, this year’s poster carried the phrase “Katāēs māēhnoweyah”— “We are all going to be alright, things will be well with us.”

What was written in the 1939 Shawano County Journal still rings true: “The bowl is considered by many to be the most foremost outdoor theater in the Middle West.” It’s in that amphitheater that Menominee people come together with others and share their culture with all who gather in the stands.

Those of you who partook in the pageant or the powwow this year know of the awesome cultural showcases that reverberate within those events. Next August, be sure to return to ‘S kew-nīmihaetuaq, as the place “where they habitually dance” is certain to host the power of Menominee performances for generations to come.

Ryan Winn teaches courses in communication, English and theater at College of Menominee Nation. For information about the school, visit www.menominee.edu.