This weekend I attended my first powwow — The 24th Annual Woodlands and High Plains Powwow — and it was a fantastic experience.
I grew up near the White Earth Nation and it’s always bothered me that I didn’t know very much about the folks running an independent nation just a few miles east of me until I was halfway through college.
The Woodlands and High Plains Powwow is an intertribal event which welcomes dancers and participants from states and provinces all over the region.
I’m told powwows take place over several hours or days, which makes the events relaxed and social. Dancers and spectators mingle, dance, shop and eat together. People of all backgrounds are welcome, and in some cases (like during a special dance for veterans) are invited to participate.
The first person I noticed when I walked in was the striking Rebekah Jarvey.
She was nice enough to tell me about her amazing, handmade Northern Plains Traditional regalia and to let me take photos so I could share what I learned with you.
Rebekah’s buckskin ensemble has a traditional shape, but she gave her elk hide skirt a more contemporary design.
It features dramatic sleeves, an intricately beaded yoke and long fringe that sways when she dances.
She carries traditional items like a fan, an artfully beaded medallion and a lush shawl made from otter fur.
Her braids are decorated with otter fur as well.
Her breastplate is made of deer bone and her regalia features a variety of other materials, including long, elegant dentalia shells, conch shells, brass beads, colorful seed beads and eagle feathers.
Rebekah’s son Royce is also a talented performer who dances Traditional and Fancy Dance in powwows and hip-hop in his free time.
Here’s Royce in his Fancy Dance regalia, made by Rebekah and her partner, JR Fox.
This sweet-faced gentleman is Joaquin, who was also getting ready with Rebekah’s group.
His wolf hide regalia is fierce and dramatic and he was the only one I saw wearing anything like it all day.
I also ran into Gabe Bennett, from Sagamok First Nation, an Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi community in Ontario. He’s a Fancy Dancer like Royce.
We didn’t talk long, because it was soon time for Grand Entry, the opening ceremony.
The dancers lined up in order of their dances and many of the men moved to the drum circles arranged around the perimeter of the dancing area.
The drum circles were an intergenerational affair, with stollers parked nearby, young men and boys sitting in the circle among the elders and a few little ones balancing on their dads’ knees in between songs.
When the first song began, it was absolutely electric.
The drum beats were hypnotic and the singing swelled and soared in ways that I’m sure is logical and well-practiced, but sounded thrilling to my untrained ears.
The dances are a riot of motion — swirling shawls and feathers, tapping feet and everywhere the rhythmic jingling from the women’s dresses and the strong bells jangling around the ankles of the men.
Jingle Dancing was the only powwow dance I was familiar with before this weekend (I took a dance class with a pair of Jingle Dancing sisters in college) and I was surprised to see that the dance seems to have originated in three Ojibwe communities, two of which — Mille Lacs and Red Lake — are just a few hours away in Minnesota.
The Jingle Dancer is light and delicate on her feet and every movement makes the jingles on her dress chime.
The male Fancy Dancers are the complete opposite — their dance is athletic and strong. Their colorful regalia — which features a spiky roach on their heads and dramatic feather bustles on their backs — really move with them.
Here’s Gabe in action with another Fancy Dancer.
The dances are dramatic, but they never felt like a performance — instead, it seemed that the dancers were lost in their own worlds, dancing for themselves, for meditation, for worship. It was a beautiful thing.
If you’ve never been to a powwow before, I recommend it. And if you’re a powwow veteran, please comment below — I’d love to hear your perspective. I know I have a lot more to learn.