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Circle the Bluffs Powwow

July 19, 2010

I attended my first powwow last month. I have been putting off writing about it because I have a lot to say on the topic, and have to keep forcing myself to pare down the verbiage.

The fifth annual Circle the Bluffs Powwow was not held near the bluffs, but rather on the Western Nebraska Community College campus.

One woman I spoke with was shocked that I’d never been to a powwow before. I told her I was originally from Illinois. She replied that so was she, and that there was a big annual powwow in Chicago.

I guess powwows just haven’t been on my radar screen before. My curiosity about the culture of this area, plus my blog, gave me a reason to set aside the time to go to Circle the Bluffs.

I arrived about five minutes before the Grand Entrance was set to begin. I wasn’t sure what a Grand Entrance was, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to start on time.

I’ve been reading some of Roger Welsch‘s writing about his friendships with some Native Americans in Nebraska, Omaha and Pawnee, I think.

At one point, he was invited to be an honored guest at an event. He was told the date, but not the time or location, because there wasn’t one yet. He described how he went bonkers trying to figure out the when and where before finally realizing that the event would occur at the best place, at the best time, when it was time to begin. This is such a foreign concept to so many Americans, but there are plenty of cultures where people are not slaves to time.

So, I wasn’t concerned that nothing seemed to be going on at 1 p.m., other than tent setup and regalia donning.

I listened to the announcer, and was interested to hear him talk about an ongoing conflict and a chance at reconciliation. At first, I figured he was talking about Iraq, but it dawned on me that he was talking about the centuries-old friction between Native Americans and Anglos. I’m willing to bet that most white people would tell you there isn’t a problem anymore and that most tribal people would tell you there definitely IS still a problem.

Did you read about the Iroquois lacrosse team denied the ability to travel to an international lacrosse tournament because they refuse to use U.S. or Canadian passports (which they consider an affront to their identity)?

I want to stress that I did not feel unwelcome at all. In fact, one woman told me how glad she was that I was there. Very few Anglos were in attendance that afternoon. I wonder if it’s because they don’t know how to act or what to expect. Crossing cultural boundaries can be scary.

I’ll describe what I witnessed as best I can. Someday, I hope to get a better understanding.

First, I wish I had known before I went that these powwows are religious events as well as social events and competitions. There are some rules that ought to be followed. Though it may not have applied exactly to this event, here are some tips I found online:

Everyone is welcome at most contest powwows, regardless of tribe – non-Indians too. For newcomers to these colorful events, a bit of explanation may enhance the enjoyment and understanding.

Pow wows are celebrations, social gatherings and friendly dance competitions. But, as with the sacred thread that runs through all of life, there are sacred traditions to be found in this coming together of people.

There is a circle in most dances, representing the circle of unity, the cycle of life. Dancers often follow the clockwise pattern of the sun.

Some of the regalia and/or ornaments signify special events or honors in a person’s life, special religious traditions or symbols rooted in legend.

When the eagle staff is brought in during the grand entry, everyone stands. Hats are removed in respect. That same respect is shown should an eagle feather fall during the dancing. Everything must stop until a proper returning of the feather has been performed.

Pointing with a finger, particularly the index finger, is considered impolite. It’s best to indicate a person or direction by pursing the lips and pointing with the eyes or to nod in the direction. For the Lakota, indicating with a thumb or little finger, while not preferred, would still be more polite than the index finger, but never toward a person.

Do not bother the performers or stand in front of those preparing to dance or those singing.

As with most events involving competition and concentration, camera flashes can be distracting. Photos may be taken, but don’t use the flash during the contest. And ask permission before snapping an individual’s photograph outside the dancing, for this is private time. Some powwows are more restrictive than others in terms of photographing the event. Videotaping is often strongly discouraged.

Don’t touch any regalia (outfits, NEVER costumes). Ornaments have special meanings and many of the handmade outfits, which can cost thousands of dollars, are cherished and sometimes are made by a respected family member. Frequently they are heirlooms and may be delicate.

When the Grand Entrance began, it was led by a very large man in very impressive regalia carrying a sacred eagle feather on a staff. Next came the American and tribal flags. Then, the organizers of the event entered the arena, followed by dancers in regalia.

All of the dancers had numbers pinned on somewhere. As part of the competition, participants recieve points for various events, and they could accumulate points by participating in the Grand Entrance in regalia.

After the Grand Entrance, the drummers who were set up under tents around the circle (each group of drummers forming a circle around their drum) took turns drumming and singing as dancers stomped and whirled. It was baking hot in the sun, and the regalia was not lightweight. You need to be in really good shape to keep that up!

The little boys danced near and emulated the men.

The little girls danced together in groups.

I loved the flickering, waving colors of the regalia!

The individuality of each person's regalia was really cool. I loved this girl's sartorial expression.

There were several organized dances in which the dancers competed. The one I photographed was a couples dance called the rabbit dance.

Some people danced in regalia, and some wore street clothes.

The man in this photo is the one who led the Grand Entrance. With his stature and regalia, he really projected gravitas.

In addition to being good dancers with cool regalia, these two were also awesome singers.

It was so hot, I didn’t stay for the whole event, but I’m glad I caught the hand drum competition. When the event was announced, several youngsters rushed over to the registration table to sign up. (These competitions are not just for glory; awards are monetary.)

The announcer said that for the hand drum competition, which involved singing as well, “the more traditional, the better.”

Some of the older participants sang in Lakota(?). But many of the young participants sang in English, which is how I deduced that these hand drum competitions are composed of courting songs.

I got a kick out of a group of boys, who I think were attending the event from Canada (Native Americans can come from all over the place for these gatherings).

They sang something to the effect of “I saw you checking me out / I want to but I can’t / My girlfriend’s bigger than you / She’ll kick your butt / And she’ll kick mine too.”

It struck me that these songs are an art form that allow for creative expression in the same way that rap does.

This girl had a great voice and really belted out her song: “tipi creepin’, frybread eatin’, bareback ridin’, powwow singin’, I love my Indian boy!”

A woman I was talking to was very pleased that there were so many children participating in the event to carry on tradition. I wonder how she felt about all the English. I was glad there was some English so I could understand more of what was going on, but surely the elders are concerned about the young keeping tribal languages alive.

Granted, traditions adapt.

I was struck by a recent media quote from Cheyenne / Arapaho filmmaker Chris Eyre (who directed and produced one of my favorite movies, Smoke Signals), who was responding to the media attention the Quiluete Nation is getting due to its inclusion in the Twilight saga.

It’s so important to have Native people in contemporary roles … that’s where I think we’re lacking. We want to see Native people in 2010. I think we’re tired of seeing Native people in 1860.

It’s got to be hard to walk that line between honoring the past and embracing the future.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

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