Powwows help preserve a culture
Powwows help preserve a culture
Ancient Plains Indian rituals blend with modern fanfare in Wyoming
By LINDA DUVAL
Colorado Springs Gazette
Sunday, May 19, 2002
Cody, Wyo. — The drumbeats begin slowly, building in volume, as the dancers enter the arena. Their regalia is a joyous contrast to their solemn footsteps.
Every color of the rainbow greets the eye, accented with beads, fringes, feathers and bells.
This is the grand entry of the 20th annual Plains Indian Museum Powwow in Cody, Wyo., an event held each June in the town founded by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody.
Visitors from all over the country come to watch this colorful event, and the crowd brims with both tourists and family members of the dancers.
It’s truly an intertribal affair. Participants in 2001 included members of the Shoshone, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, Comanche, Arikara, Hidatsa, Lakota Sioux, Pawnee and Cree tribes.
Emma Hansen, a Pawnee originally from Oklahoma, is curator of the Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, next door to the powwow grounds. Hansen is a cultural anthropologist and organizer of the annual event.
“This is a recognition of our heritage,” she says of the event and of powwows in general. “It’s a chance to express ourselves artistically and to gather with old friends.”
Blending old and new
It’s also a chance to show the public what the Indian culture is all about, she adds.
“A lot of people think all the Indians are gone,” she says. “Events like this prove that’s far from true.
As with most powwows, this one is “not just a performance,” Hansen says. “It also involves competitions and ceremonies.”
It’s also a blend of ancient and modern. Some songs are generations old; some are new. Some costumes are strictly traditional; some are contemporary designs or adaptations of old ones.
Some chants are basically sounds; others have real words, often in the tribal language.
“Because of powwows, we share ideas and arts,” Hansen says. Jingle dresses, for example, were a creation of the tribes of the Great Lakes region, but now can be seen in powwows in the West.
Powwows are truly intergenerational events, too. Babies and elders share a blanket on the grass. Fathers dance with sons, mothers with daughters, and they even compete against one another.
Curly Bear Wagner of the Blackfeet tribe, from Heart Butte, Mont., sips a cold drink between performances. He’s here with his son, Joseph, 14, a lanky basketball player who has been drumming and dancing since he was a small child.
What brings them here?
“It’s important because we come together in a circle,” Wagner says. The drummers sit in a circle, the dancers form circles, the amphitheater is a circle, and the watchers sit in a circle around them.
The circle is a powerful shape, he says. It represents connectedness, community and continuity.
Dancing, for him, “is a way to keep all the old ways alive.” He wants his son to learn, and pass it on to yet another generation.
At powwows, as in every-day life, the elders of the tribe are treated with great respect.
“They are our veterans,” Wagner says.
He, too, is a veteran — of Vietnam.
“My gener- ation, we were the warriors,” he says of his military service. “When other Vietnam vets were being scorned by the public, we were revered in our tribes.”
Son Joseph waits politely while his father speaks but is anxious to borrow a few dollars for some lunch. Right now, Joseph is more interested in getting a Navajo taco and a cold drink, but someday he’ll know how important the dancing is, his father says.
But the food is important, too, Wagner says. He says that “powwow” is the Pawnee word meaning “to eat great food.” (And the Algonquin word for council, or meeting.)
His people have a saying: “If the food is good, the powwow is good.”
Vendors follow the circuit with their paintings, sculptures, beadwork, pottery, jewelry and crafts, selling their art directly to the customer. They share ideas and take new techniques home with them, they say. Many choose one or two powwows for their summer vacation and hope to sell enough goods to pay for the trip.
Like the artists, the dancers admire and sometimes copy one another’s regalia.
George Abeyta and son Jordan, 14, Shoshones from the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, are competing in the men’s fancy dancing. Their costumes are elegantly elaborate, and they have help in making them from various friends and family members.
During the school year, Abeyta is a fifth-grade teacher, but summer is family time. His wife, two daughters and two sons accompany him to powwows.
“It’s something we can all do together,” he explains.
He also feels that his performance is a gift.
“I believe dancing is a form of prayer, and through our dances we can share this gift with others,” he says.
IF YOU GO
Details: Plains Indian Museum Powwow, June 15-16, Cody, Wyo. Held at the Joe Robbie Powwow Gardens adjacent to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody.
About 40 vendors of crafts and food, plus dancers and drummers from more than 30 tribes. Also, at the historical center, “Mountain Spirit Family: The Art and Culture of the Ute Indians,” an exhibit curated in Colorado Springs. Call (307) 578-4025 or (307) 587-4771 for information; or log on to www.bbhc.org.
More information: The Plains Indian Museum Powwow in Cody, Wyo., is just one of scores of American Indian powwows that run year-round across the United States.
The Native American Times online newspaper — www.okit.com — has a comprehensive list of those in the West; nativeamericainc.com and The Spike newsletter both offer links nationwide, for events from New England to California.
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