A powwow preserves native culture and is a time for people to gather, sing, dance, feast, pray, renew old friendships and make new ones …
Large, looping Lake Skakawea, created by damming the Missouri River, brings a watery contrast to the vast rolling prairie lands of north-west North Dakota. New Town nestles on the lake’s shore, and this weekend it’s hosting the Little Shell Powwow. I’m here on a mission. Never having attended a powwow, I want to learn about them. What is their mystery? Why are Native people, especially in the plains of Canada and the United States, so captivated by them?
But first I meet Jason Morsette, a Tribal Tourism manager. He explains a project to draw tourists to New Town and the sprawling Fort Berthold Reserve (988,000 acres), home to the Mandat, Hidatsa, Arikara Nations, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. Attractions are the Four Bears Casino and a museum. The Earth Lodge Village, with six lodges, showcases native culture; large metal silhouettes of natives in regalia stand dramatically on a nearby hill. A cultural centre is under construction. “The powwow, however, is central to the tourism strategy,” Morsette emphasizes.
The Little Shell Powwow has become a major event, attracting about 10,000 attendees over four days on the second weekend of August. The main events are dancing competitions with dancers wearing fabulous regalias of feathers, beads and more. That evening, I watch the Grand Entrance. The Little Shell Arbour, located on a point of land, is a mass of dancers of all ages, all wearing colourful traditional costumes, all hopping and bopping to the ferocious beat of singers and drummers. It’s like a kaleidoscope in vivid technicolour!
Next day, I walk to the Arbour passing a field of campers, tents and three teepees. People wander about in partial or full dress either going to or coming from different dance competitions.
I speak with Jonna Grace Brady who has just finished the Jingle Dress Dance. An infectious smile plays across her face and although only 15 she is already a seasoned dancer having started at age three. “I love dancing, it brings joy,” she gushes. “I dance for the elders, for the Creator and for fun. At home, I’m always dancing to the sound of Northern Cree.” She is wearing a dress which features fancy beadwork and many little bells and is holding a fan of eagle feathers. “I love my vest. A close friend made it and it brings out my personality.” She jokes and laughs with two friends who are also wearing regalia and, obviously, also very engrossed in dancing.
I’m captivated by how many very young children are dressed in traditional costumes. They wander happily in the midst of dance competitions, trying to imitate their elders. Circles of men pounding on large drums and singing provide the beat for dancers. Their intensity and the deep throbbing sound are mesmerizing.
I chat with 21-year-old Dustin Eder from Montana, who is wearing a striking outfit in yellows, reds and blues with a formidable war bonnet. “I prefer the grass dance,” he explains.” “The judges look for how you stay on the timing, your regalia, your dance steps and that you stop on time. I’m not going to win, but I enjoy dancing and it keeps me in shape.”
I’m getting a glimmer of the philosophy that lies behind powwows. Everybody participates! Everyone dances, even the youngest. The outfits, which are very elaborate and intricate, are made by the dancers themselves or by their close relatives. Nothing is store bought. What a refreshing contrast to us non-natives, who have become spectators to life. Powwows not only preserve native culture, but are also immensely satisfying. Little wonder that the small state of North Dakota holds 13 each year.
Amazingly, driving through town, you wouldn’t know a powwow was being held as no advertising is visible. Natives learn by word-of-mouth and simply keep coming back year after year because they enjoy it so much.
A rodeo is held in conjunction with this powwow, after all, North Dakota is cowboy country and Indians love horses. I arrive just in time for the official opening. The riders, all wearing large Stetsons, are introduced and they come from as far away as California, Texas, Wisconsin and Canada. Jason Morsette, dressed in full regalia including an impressive war bonnet, sings the national anthem in his native Arikara language.
Then the mayhem begins. The bulls are tough, angry critters and no ride lasts longer than a few seconds with the riders dodging deadly, flying hooves as they are thrown into the dirt. I speak with Levi Irving a slim 19-year-old Navajo from Arizona who’s been competing for 15 years. “I want to win the $25,000 first prize and my strategy is to go off my rack,” he says. He describes frequent injuries and shows me a nasty scar on his arm. I wish him luck, quietly giving thanks that I’m a writer and not a bull rider.
Initially held in springtime, powwows are so popular they are now held throughout the year. As I am witnessing, they are a time for people to gather, sing, dance, feast, pray, renew old friendships and make new ones.