(Sheridan, Wyo) Powwows are amazing to experience; the dancers’ regalia, the sound of the drum, the smell of sage. But they are much more than an entertaining spectacle. Powwow culture has developed over the past 100 years and is rich with meaning. Dances and songs have meaning, the order of events often holds significance, and regalia (the traditional clothing worn by dancers) has a history.
Powwow has varying origin stories around the country, with some powwows starting when different tribes were placed together on reservations in Oklahoma (sometimes referred to as “Indian Country”) and developed a pan-Indian culture. Many powwows in the west, however, are rooted in the days of Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Knowing that Indians didn’t have a lot of ways to make money, showmen would entice dancers to compete for money as a form of entertainment. Songs, dances, and traditional forms of dress were being banned, and powwows gave people a chance to express their culture. Local powwows, much like rodeos, grew in popularity during the 1920’s as spectacle performances. This, however, did not stop them from becoming deeply meaningful and important to tribes over time.
Thursday’s powwow started with a flag song, the crow national anthem. Taylor Realbird, who fought in Afghanistan, was announced as the leading warrior and carried the U.S. flag. Honoring the flag and honoring warriors are traditional parts of powwow culture across the U.S. The Crow people, man and women alike, have served in every U.S. conflict since WWII. This is common across Indian cultures, with Native Americans having the highest enlistment rate per capita out of any nationality in the U.S. Some traditions are specific to particular tribal groups, but the honoring of the flag and veterans is shared across many tribal cultures.
After the flag was presented, Crow elder Leonard Bends offered a prayer to the creator that everyone would get home safely, the lights would always stay on, food would always be provided, and everyone would always have enough gas for their cars. After the prayer, Bends walked around to all participants and audience members with Butch Jealous and conducted a traditional sage smudging. After a victory song and a round dance, the demonstration of several traditional dances commenced. As with high regard for the flag and veterans, prayer is a traditional part of most powwows.
Many dances have traditional stories associated that explain their origin. Grass dance, practiced by the Northern Cheyenne and displayed at Thursday’s powwow, for instance, has a couple origin stories. One story relates that when a ceremony would occur, such as Sun-dance, dancers would be asked to dance down the grass before it began. Another story tells of a paralyzed young man who had a dream in which spirits showed him the regalia and the dance. When the dance was performed as it was dreamed, the young man walked again. After that others continued the dance in order to keep the medicine.
The style of regalia worn often tells a story, such as women’s traditional dresses which were once made of buckskin but are often made of “trade cloth” since contact times. These dresses are decorated with elks teeth, two teeth from each elk killed, which traditionally showed that a woman’s husband was a good hunter, protector and provider. Individual dancers’ regalia can also hold deeply personal meaning.
Kenny Spotted told the story of his wife Jennifer’s regalia. “Some families hand down regalia from generation to generation,” he said, “My sister gifted her outfit to her out of respect for me and respect for her and everything she does for me and our family.”
Another dancer, Leonard Bends, whose Crow name is Medicine Rock Chief, wore a bonnet which belonged to his grandfather, Donald Dernose. “This war bonnet is over 100 years old,” he said. “My grandfather was one of the founders of Sheridan Indian days in the 50’s. It started because Sheridan and the local Crow tribe needed better relations. When I was young, there were still signs that I can remember in Sheridan that said ‘No Indians or dogs allowed’ and I didn’t understand.”
According to Northern Cheyenne drummers, the powwow drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth. It also represents thunder. Singing and drumming are ways to connect to the creator. While some tribes have women who drum, in our region only men may sit at the drum, but women may stand behind the drummers and sing with them.
Friday’s powwow will be longer than those that occurred Wednesday and Thursday. It will begin at 12:00 pm at the Sheridan Inn and will conclude at 3:00 pm. If you haven’t had the chance to attend one of the powwows, it is well worth making time in your day to attend on Friday.