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The Strength Of A Nation With A Beat

by Sarah Johnson 16 days ago in culture

A Powwow Experience

The beating of the drum is the first thing I hear. At first, it starts out slow, like a heartbeat…thump, thump…thump, thump. Then the beat speeds up and my heart tries to find the rhythm. But the beat is much faster, like excitement building. One voice begins the song. There are no words, just a melodic vocal sound, like one eagle calling to another. Then the other voices join in and it sounds like a harmonized war cry. The smell of sage and sweetgrass is in the air and I watch the dancers form a line at the East Gate. Long dark hair blows in the breeze and eagle feathers ruffle. Then the chuffing sound of moccasins gliding over the grass in perfect rhythm with the drum tells me that these are my people and I am where I belong.

I am in Heath, Ohio at the 30th Annual Selma Walker Powwow. A powwow is essentially the gathering of different tribes of Native Americans to celebrate their culture, honor their ancestors, celebrate life, and meet old friends or make new ones. Today is Saturday, so the event is frequented by many of the public, from all walks of life. In my experience, Saturday is the best day to go to a Powwow, especially if it is particularly hot outside. On the first day, all the dancers will dress in their best regalia. They do dress up on Sunday as well, but they may not get the buckskins or heavy regalia accessories out. However, right now, everyone is waiting for the powwow to formally begin. Some of the public are family and friends of the dancers; others are just interested parties, wanting to see what it’s all about. The biggest concentration of the people though is the dancers and drummers, with their families. Some drive for hundreds of miles to move along the powwow path to attend and compete in these events. Then there are the vendors themselves, set up for the public.

The vendors sell their wares, which helps them travel from place to place. This also allows the public to buy a piece of handmade jewelry, beads, Native American pictures, books, and CDs. The children can have their face painted, purchase a flute, or a replica toy bow and arrow. They can even taste a bit of Native American cuisine, which is what I smell coming from the vendor food trucks. I see a few people sitting at a picnic table with fry bread tacos or fry bread with powdered sugar in front of them. Frybread is a staple for Native Americans. It’s just dough, patted out flat and deep-fried. Then the taco fixings are added to the top. Or when powdered sugar is sprinkled over it, it’s kind of like an elephant ear you get at the fair. There are also buffalo burgers and lavender lemonade. I am here for a couple of reasons, one of which is to capture beautiful pictures. The other is to feel at home where I wouldn’t otherwise.

My sense or feeling of belonging is just that…a feeling. I was driving down the street one day years ago after I had learned of my heritage and I caught a glimpse of a man standing on the corner ready to cross. I saw the long dark hair, dark brown skin, and the lithe form, but unfortunately not his face. It happened so fast, but there was a feeling in my chest which is hard to explain. I have seen movies or read books where something happens so unexpectedly that my heart drops or it feels kind of hollow because of the surprise. This time it was like my heart jumped in recognition.

Being at a powwow is like coming full circle. It’s like spending time with family, a very large group of people. I may not know many of them, but it still feels comfortable being there. My task, or my pleasure, is to photograph who I consider my people. It doesn’t matter what tribe they are from. Powwows are a mish-mash of different tribes that come together as one. Photographing their beauty as humans as well as their dance, or their way of honoring their ancestors gives me pleasure and something to look back on. Another photographer, Edward Curtis, was also interested in preserving the Native American Culture, but he did it with more than just photographs. Unfortunately, Edward Curtis wasn’t that well known until after he died. However, the history he captured from all over the country back in the early 1900s is amazing. I feel the need to also preserve history, but more for art’s sake. Add personal enjoyment as well and I have a wonderful hobby. Photographing anything is like wanting to capture the past, honor the future, and preserve the history for years to come.

If I didn’t already know that I was in Ohio, on a hot summer day, with numerous noisy touristy type people around me, I would think that I had been transported back in time. The buckskin regalia that the men and women wear proudly could have put me back a couple of hundred years. As I pass by the tent that protects the drummers I notice another group of singers preparing their drum. I now know where the strong scent of sage is coming from. Preparing the drum is a ritual of cleansing and is called smudging1. The smoke of the burning sage and other herbs is fanned over the drum and the drummers’ person with a feather and is believed to cleanse away negativity, and is a form of healing and purification. I stand in respect and watch this Native tradition unfold. It is awe-inspiring to see the reverence in the movements as the group respect and honor their ancestors and the spirit of the drum this way.

One person will hold the smudge kit. The ones I have seen consist of a medium-sized abalone shell, which the burning bundle of sage is placed in. Some tribes may burn different herbs or mix them, depending on what they need. The other person will cup their hands, go behind the smoke and pull the smoke to them. The person will do this several times, moving the smoke over their head, their chest, and then their body. The sage is used to get rid of negative energy. Braided Sweetgrass is used for blessing. Tobacco is also a big part of the powwow. Tobacco is given to elders as a sign of respect if you want to hear their stories. It is also offered to the drum before playing it. A member of the drum will take loose tobacco and place a portion to the four directions on top of the drum. The number four is a sacred number to Native Americans because it reflects the four directions of Mother Earth, North, South, East, and West.

The drum is very important to a powwow. It is its own spirit. The Curve Lake First Nation Tribe in Ontario points out that “the drum is more than a musical instrument to Native people. It has a life and spirit of its own. Drum groups have ceremonies to have their drums blessed and named. This strengthens the spirit of the drum. In some traditions, the drum symbolizes the heartbeat of the earth” (“Curve Lake First Nation”). At a powwow, the drum group is chosen by those putting on the event and they are invited to play and sing. This invitation honors them as being very skilled at what they do; it also honors their ancestors. Both Mark Squires and Jennifer Mitchell also point out that “the drum is the heartbeat of Mother Earth.”

The songs are also very important to the powwow. There are warrior songs, hunting songs, battle songs, romantic songs, which are mostly made up for fun and the Women’s choice dance, and many others. Jennifer Mitchell points out that “the songs we sing are very important to not only us but to the people. The songs represent many things. There are some for different stages and events in life and some are sung for loss and healing. A lot of tribes believed that songs they sang came from the spirits, and a lot of Native American music is honoring the spirits that the Native American believed lived within everything in nature.”

There is ritual and tradition behind the opening of a powwow and Indian Time is a moniker that is accurate for most. If the event says it will start at 1 p.m. in more cases than not, it may be a little late. There is a protocol that must be followed, and the M.C. of the powwow will dictate what happens and when it happens. He announces the drums who will play and sing and the dances that correspond with the players. The dancers are the event draw primarily, but the drums and singers behind them make it a team and the heartbeat of the powwow. “I have traveled the powwow circuit right around 17 years,” Mark Squires related. “The songs, to me, are most important. Songs tell stories, traditions, and some songs tell you the type of dance. There are also songs that help children enjoy the powwow.”

I dodge children bent on frustrating their parents by running from one booth to the other, begging for this or that. I walk by an area that has a type of reenactment booth set up. A man dressed in a light cotton type tunic tucked into wool pants, with knee-high moccasins, stands at a table showing some handmade knives. I have been to both powwows and reenactments or Rendezvous’ and they differ greatly. One is the honoring of ancestors and their way of life, the other, the participants get a chance to live a life that is long gone at some period in time. Usually, either a war, an era where fur trappers and mountain men were prevalent, or when early colonists held the fort.

The Grand Entry is beginning and this is where the Native American Veterans carry the flags out into the inner circle and place them. First comes the Head Woman and Head Man Dancers, then the procession of dancers. Then the group of veterans follows. Out of respect everyone stands and the men in the audience are requested to take off their hats, and no pictures are allowed. This is a solemn time in honor of all veterans, not just the Native American ones. The M.C. announces each veteran and the flag they will place. There are usually around 4 to 6 flags. The American flag, the P.O.W. flag, as well as Tribal flags. Honoring veterans is an important part of any powwow. Veterans are warriors. The reason it is so important is “this stems from times when the welfare of a village depended on the tribal warriors. To be a warrior was a man’s purpose in life. Veterans are honored because they have devoted their lives so others can live in freedom. Generosity, wisdom, fortitude, and bravery are the four virtues held in great honor in many First Nations” (Curve Lake First Nation”).

Nearly a half-hour later, the flags are placed and everyone is out of the inner circle. The M.C. announces the dance and the drum that will be singing. Now the fun begins. I watch the dancers diligently, waiting for the right moment, the perfect shot. I raise my camera and watch as a line of brightly clad female dancers enters the circle. Their arms are held out away from their body, shoulder high, and in their hands, they grasp the corners of their shawls. When they begin dancing, the shawl flows out behind them in the current that their dance generates. Each one, arms outspread, resembling the wings of butterflies. This is the Fancy Shawl Dance2. This dance requires agility, strength, and a lightness of feet. I manage to catch them all in my frame as they hop and jump. This dance is likened to butterflies and is an apt description as they make their way around the circle, dancing with the rhythm of the drum. Their fringed shawls are like colorful wings.

I again walk around, perusing the vendor stands, the handmade jewelry, smudge kits, and many different kinds of semi-precious stones. I sing along with some of the songs that I know. I am part Cherokee and Blackfoot and when I found out my heritage when I was in my 20’s I became obsessed with everything Native American. My dad told me that my grandfather received a letter from the Cherokee Nation stating that he was ¼ Cherokee and asked him if he wanted any monetary compensation from the government because he was part Native American. My dad also said that my grandfather didn’t want the money and then he discarded the letter.

When I was a kid my sister and I received some Native American beaded necklaces you would buy at a gift shop of some kind and I just put them away. It wasn’t something I would wear; it was just pretty. Then I found out my heritage, my sister bought me my first Native American wall art, I pulled the necklace out of storage, and I was off to a good start. It wasn’t until years later that I started going to Native American Powwow’s3. I met a friend of a friend in 1996, who just happened to be Native American and was a drummer/singer at Powwows. His brother, years later, would become my husband (who was also a drummer/singer), and we traveled around Ohio and Pennsylvania on weekends, doing the Powwow tour with the drum. Back then I also sewed many regalia outfits and moccasins for both my husband, myself and other members of my extended family.

The most traditional fabric or material to use is buckskin. Especially when making leggings, tunics, moccasins, and loincloths. The women’s buckskin dress is easier to make but just as time-consuming. Moccasins are difficult to make, especially knee-high ones. They are also made of buckskin. The pair that I made for myself took some time, especially doing the beadwork on the top of the foot area. The other types of material used can be cotton, wool, leather, linen, and silk. There are many other different fabrics and patterns that are true to history but made with comfort in mind. When making Fancy Shawl regalia the shawl is usually a solid color that matches the colors in the dress. Different colored ribbons are used to complete the edges of the shawl, which would be the fringe. Most often appliques or beadwork of some kind is used to make the shawl more stunning. The shawls used in the Women’s Traditional Dance, which are folded over the arm, usually have patches sewn to them. The patches usually represent war veterans, POWs, Native American groups or affiliation, or simply something that means something to them personally. This also goes for the men that wear vests, have their own blanket type shawl, or they will be sewn to a part of their regalia.

The beading is exquisite and the craft of beading is passed down from generation to generation, grandmother or mother to daughter. I make jewelry and have made many Native American Dreamcatchers, but even though I have beaded some, I am in no way an expert and I don’t have the patience for working with such tiny beads. I taught myself how to make jewelry, and how to sew and make crafts, but there is a limit. Quillwork is what I would love to learn to do. Native women will decorate their buckskin dresses with quills or beadwork. Porcupine quills were used hundreds of years ago for decoration, like needles, and to make jewelry. Today they are used for the same thing.

Feathers are also a very important part of regalia. The eagle feather is sacred and considered powerful, as is the eagle itself. I have seen a few eagle feather ceremonies in my time at powwows. If an eagle feather accidentally drops off of a piece of regalia the powwow stops and a ceremony is performed to get back the lost power of the feather. “Four traditional dancers, usually veterans, dance around the feather from the four directions and usually attack four times to retrieve it. A person should never touch the fallen eagle feather or any other piece of regalia that may come loose. The dancer will be notified and proper procedure will be followed to correct the situation” (“Curve Lake First Nation”). A lot of turkey feathers are also used, but mainly in crafts, fans, headdresses, and bustles.

Many Native Americans have native names. My husband was part Shawnee he and I went through a naming ceremony. It wasn’t an elaborate ceremony in any way. We had friends looking on as the medicine man, Snow Owl, prayed and offered up tobacco. We were then asked to speak our name, but not out loud, only in our head. Snow Owl circled us many times, sprinkled tobacco over our heads and we were done. Just because it wasn’t a showy tradition, it was still respectful and inspiring. Afterward, we revealed our names. My husband’s name was Wandering Wolf and mine was Redfeather. Many years later, I now travel the powwow path alone, but still keep in touch with some of the people I met, who remain friends and who I still consider family. Jennifer Mitchell, who is also of Shawnee descent is known as “Green Butterfly.”

While I wait for a men’s dance to begin I walk the outside circle and stop where I began when I entered. I look over the crowd of people. There are all cultures, nationalities, and religions in this group of people. Some are there for the show; some are there to see what it’s all about. I am there because it feels like the place I need to be. I survey the scene around me. I see the boundary of the outer circle; this is where the vendors are set up. The circle is exactly that, a circle. Beyond that, I see tents, campers, and tipi’s set up for those that traveled from other states and are a part of the event. I have seen license plates from Oklahoma, South Dakota, of course, Ohio, and many others. The cars and trucks are just like ours. Some are pickup trucks or minivans, others are just cars, and some look like they have traveled thousands of miles.

I reflect on just how many of these I have seen and been to and how many different tribes that have the same beliefs and traditions pass this way. How many of them were enemies in the long-dead past? How many of them are integrating for the first time with other tribes that they have never met before? More and more Native Americans are coming together and it’s an amazing sight to see. I now stand in the circle for the public. There is also a walkway of sorts on the outside of the two inner circles. One for the drums and M.C. who are under canopies out of the sun, and then the dance circle.

I see men and boys alike in regalia. Long dark hair flowing over their shoulders. Some have a small braid and attached to that a feather. Certain types of regalia, depending on the dance, cover up most if not all the skin. Others will wear just a beaded chest plate, or a leather vest and leggings. Their dark skin, complemented by their dark hair, shines in the sunlight. I also see white-skinned men, women, and children wearing regalia. It’s not what is on the outside that matters, it’s what is in the heart that defines a true Native American.

I remember taking a friend with me to a powwow a few years ago. I was excited for her to see what one was all about. She seemed excited as well but was disappointed in the end. When I asked why she told me “I thought it would be like the movies with the men riding out on horses.” I told her that powwow was not like that. Needless to say, she never went to another with me. Another powwow I went to, many, many years ago, was the first time that I encountered Native American prejudice, from a Native American man. He was young, good-looking, longish dark hair, but he was standing off to the side, and his t-shirt said Security. We talked a little, but the most memorable part was when he said to me that white people shouldn’t be dancing in the circle. The dance circle was for full-blooded Native American’s according to him. Even his handsome dark features and kindness to me, all I could want in a man, didn’t cover up his prejudiced attitude toward the white man.

I can truly see from his point of view though. I have studied tribes and their history extensively and what was done to the Native Americans when the colonists came to America was reprehensible. They were treated as slaves, killed, imprisoned, starved, and their children were taken away. They were not allowed to speak their own language and were punished if they did so. I sincerely can see his and other's points of view, but I can see that attitude in use a couple of hundred years ago, maybe even up to a half-century ago, but today? Adaptation is the key. As I said before, his attitude alone doesn’t reflect what others believe. Or what I believe or feel for my own ancestry. Powwows are a celebration of life, all people’s lives, and his beliefs didn’t change the way I saw or felt about a powwow.

I must admit though that over the years I have become jaded about powwows. It seems to be more commercialized than ever before. When I went to my first powwow I was amazed, it was so different than anything I had ever seen before. The more of them I went to, the more I looked forward to going to the next one. Though there are negative sides to everything, however, going to one doesn’t make me respect them less. The Native Americans have had to adapt just like anyone over the years, but the traditions, the dances, and the honor and respect for life, ancestors, and Mother Earth are the same. One of the best powwows I went to was in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I lived in Arkansas at the time and I and my family drove down for the powwow. Tahlequah is the Cherokee Capital and the Cherokee Nations home, as well as part of the trail on the Trail of Tears. It was an amazing feeling to be there and feel as if I belonged.

The drumbeat changes and the men take the stage or in this case the inner circle. It’s the Men’s Fancy Dance4. Like the women’s Fancy Shawl Dance, there needs to be certain agility and lightness of feet, but also strength. There are two types of steps in the dance, one is a fast step that is used in contests and the other is a simple step. Their regalia is simple and does not specify tribal affiliations. Accessories consist of beaded medallions, color-coordinated feather bustles, armbands, and some wear breastplates. This is my time to capture some great photos. I tend to take more pictures of men than women. I think it’s because I am fascinated by the long dark hair and the dark skin of a native man. I have read way too many Indian romance books in my day.

I walk to the edge of the circle and wait. I don’t have to wait long. There are both men and boys in this group and the young ones learn their true heritage very quickly. There are a number of great photo opportunities here and I am planning to take advantage. I see my shot when two of the dancers are close enough together to get in one shot. These types of photographs remind me of Edward Curtis’ photos. Indian Chiefs posing regally in their buckskins. Women going about their daily tasks or breaking down their homes (tipis) and packing their belongings to move to their winter camp. He captured the history and had a vision of preserving it for generations to come. He visited over 80 tribes during the last part of his lifetime and the result of his work is praised even today. It took him 30 years, but he accomplished what he set out to do. He collected information from each tribe on their beliefs, how they lived, customs, traditions, and even took pictures of daily activities. He also created cylinder recordings of music, language, and the like.

Curtis pointed out that "The passing of every old man or woman means the passing of some tradition, some knowledge of sacred rites possessed by no other...consequently, the information that is to be gathered, for the benefit of future generations, respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost for all time" (Horse Capture). Many people have tried over the years to recreate the timelessness

of the Native American Indian in both paintings and sculpture. While they are beautiful to look at and admire, to me, Curtis’ work will stand out in my mind. His life and the challenges he faced while traveling the country make me admire him more for what he went through.

Back a hundred or so years ago, you would see mainly full-blooded Native American Indians. Now I see many dancers, who most would consider Caucasian. However, they have Native Blood, just like I do, so they go out there and honor their ancestors by dressing up in a native dress or regalia5 to honor native traditions. Each set of regalia is specific to the dance and culture. I look to capture that one perfect moment in time, that one photo that says everything about the Native American people. That faith in a higher being, the stoicism, and the strength to overcome everything that has ever been done to them since the first colonists landed. Point and shoot. I have found the essence of strength.

There are many dances and each one has a different meaning for both the male and female. Jennifer Mitchell points out that the Powwow or Veterans Dance is her favorite. “This dance is where those who at one time made an oath to defend our country, even to give their life for all of us so we can enjoy the freedom that we have.” Some of the dances have been revised and adapted over the years, but in truth, the gathering of many tribes all in one place is the main focus. The bystanders are just that, watching a different culture do the things they have been doing for hundreds of years, gathering together in celebration and togetherness and today is no different. Mark Squires, also known as Squirrel, who is a mix of Shawnee, Cherokee, and Cayuga points out that “the powwow means coming together, to share traditions, songs, and dances.”

As I walk the circle again to stretch my legs and look for other photo opportunities, I hear the beautiful melody of the flute. And then another joins in. It’s break time for the drummers and dancers. If I closed my eyes the sound would make me feel as if I had been transported back in time. I photograph them as well. Native American flutes can be made by using different types of wood, depending on what pitch and sound are needed. It is known in certain tribes that the male plays the flute when he is courting a woman. The sounds the flute makes is a hollow echo, like when you blow into the top of a glass bottle of soda, but the flute has a beautiful melody.

After the break, the Women’s Traditional Dance6 is next and it is a blend of buckskin and cloth regalia. The buckskin can be different colors, but the natural off-white/beige color is the most appealing because it is the traditional cultural style. They have fringed shawls that are folded and carried over one arm. The beading, whether it be intricate and around the top of the dress or just as an accent, tells whether the woman is from the north or the south. The women dance slow and they are very graceful in their movements, as is the song that is played and sang. They move around the circle once or twice and then leave through the East Gate, where they entered. Jennifer Mitchell’s favorite dance is the Women’s Traditional. “It is the oldest form of dance for ladies. Females of all ages are seen dancing this very regal and proud style. Pride of heritage, culture and family can be seen in the faces and demeanor of the dancers. I feel a very huge sense of pride dancing the Women’s Traditional and how elegant the dance is with the swaying of the fringe from the shawl and the very subtle, but powerful moves.”

The Jingle Dress Dance7 tends to be for the younger generation dancers as well as being newer to the powwow scene. Younger girls that have the stamina and agility to leap and hop around in time with the drum, making the ornaments on their dresses sing, yet still looking dignified and respectful. This dance is sometimes known as the prayer dance or the healing dance. There are different accounts of how the dress and the dance came to be. Curve Lake First Nation explains one account of the story.

“The most accepted story comes from Mille Lacs, Minnesota. In this account, a Holy Man had a dream where he was met by four women wearing jingle dresses. They showed him how to make the jingle dress, what type of song was to be used and how the dance was to be performed. The women told him the sound of the dress had the power to heal the sick. Upon waking the Holy Man instructed the women of the village to make jingle dresses. When the dresses were complete the women danced in the way the man instructed them to. As the women danced the Holy Man’s grand daughter struggled to rise but was too weak. She was carried around the dance arena. The second time around she was able to walk on her own. Her strength increased as she listened to the sound of the jingles and soon she was able to dance again. She had been healed by the sound of the jingles hitting against each other. The jingle dress and dance spread throughout Ojibwe territory to the Dakota and Lakota in the 1920s and as far west as Montana. Women from many tribes now make and wear jingle dresses at Pow Wows” (“Curve Lake First Nation”).

Next up is the Men’s Northern Traditional Dance8, or what I like to call the Warrior Dance or Sneak Up. This is the oldest form of dancing, but it has changed over the years. The men’s movements aren’t really dance steps, but the movements of a warrior, checking the ground for signs of the enemy. They crouch and look at the ground, sweeping their hands just above the ground, like there is tall grass they need to move aside. They continue in this walk crouch type movement around the circle while the drums and singers play. The beat moving them around. Mark Squires says that he can relate to the Sneak Up. “I love it (Sneak Up), it represents a warrior in battle.”

The Men’s Southern Traditional Dance9 is like the Women’s Traditional Dance. The men stand tall and proud, moving slowly around the circle. The dancer’s regalia is very precise, and color-coordinated which reflects a solid foundation. Unlike the traditional dances, the Grass Dance10 also requires strength, stamina, and agility. This is a dance for men/boys and their regalia reflects the name. The seams of the regalia have a yarn fringe attached to the outside seam of the pants, the shirt, and the apron. Dancers will wear bells around their ankles, some will adorn their regalia with beaded applications or certain symbols. This dance, at one time, was for warriors. It has changed over the years and has become a popular and competitive dance.

The M.C. likes to make it fun for the crowd so there are usually a couple of times that anyone who wants to dance can. These dances are called Inter-Tribal Dances11. They also have a Sweetheart Dance12. This is a dance where it’s women’s choice. They get to choose the men they dance with. He even makes it fun for the children near the end of the powwow by singing a song that was written for the Candy Dance. Candy is strewn around the circle and the children are given bags. The dance begins and it's time to pick up candy. The Blanket Dance13 is also near the end of the powwow. Each dance has a song and a beat.

It’s been a long day and I finally get the pictures I want, but this time I will stay for the “after” event instead of going home. A fire will be laid and either Native American stories will be told or it will be a time of catching up. Whether it’s each tribe’s creation story or stories about how precious Mother Earth is to the People, it’s a time of sharing. It is interesting to see the dancers in regular clothing, laughing and talking among friends. However, they don’t lose that special something that draws a crowd. That respect for the earth and the ancestors. “I love the evenings sitting around the fire telling stories, laughing, and sharing songs, and just being together with no objective other than being together. Just enjoying the moment, as simple as it sounds, it is so impressionable and so moving,” Jennifer Mitchell says. I have been to many powwows over the years and it never gets old. Mark Squires has been to many after powwow get-togethers. He says, “we have drummed late at night which we called 49ing. We have told stories like how Skunk got his stripe and how Bear lost his tail.”

All powwows in some way honor the loss of loved ones, the loss of warriors and veterans, ancestors and leaders alike. Some people have mentors or people they look up to whether it be an elder, a medicine man, or just someone in their life that taught them what they know. Jennifer Mitchell has such a person that she remembers and honors. The last powwow together was at Atwood Lake in Ohio, this is also her favorite powwow. “It’s on top of a hill by the lake and you can feel the spirits in the wind as you dance for the ancestors. Atwood Lake is one of the places where it all began and some things ended. This powwow is where I met a man that has been a huge part of my learning and knowing my heritage, and the reason my father and I became members of a drum and eventually had our own drum.”

I can tell this is a very moving subject for her. I had never met Russel Two-Feathers, but I had heard of him from a few people. Jennifer continues, “the songs we know and share were taught to us at this powwow. Other than my father, the greatest man who influenced my life and taught me my heritage was Russel Two-Feathers. One year at this powwow was the last time I had with him and the things he shared and taught me that last weekend I will never forget and will treasure. That is why Atwood Lake holds a special part in my heart and in my memories.”

In regards to Edward Curtis’ work, George Horse Capture points out that “As one admires the beauty of the Curtis photographs they must be placed in a proper perspective. Despite the dedication and hardships, the photographer had to endure, the ultimate beauty of “The North American Indian” lies not only with the genius of Curtis, but also and most importantly, within his subjects. The native beauty, strength, pride, honor, dignity, and other admirable characteristics may have been recorded by photographic techniques, but they were first an integral part of the people. While Curtis was a master technician, the Indian people possessed the beauty and their descendants carry on these same traits today” (Horse Capture).

I know that I could never measure up to the legend that Curtis turned out to be, but in my own way, my photography stands out to many that don’t know what a Powwow is, or what happens at one. The beautiful regalia, bright colors, and subdued, yet excited air of respect and awe that exudes from the dancers has its effect on the audience. Some audience may see a bunch of people dancing around a circle to music they have never heard before. Others may like the brightly colored regalia and the intricate dance steps. And to others, it may just be about getting out of the house, buying a few cultural trinkets, and then going home. To me, it’s more than that. It’s a chance to walk beside a tribal leader or a medicine man. Maybe talk to a veteran that survived several wars, or an elder that has never learned English and likes it that way. My photos set that scene and produce feelings of sensory overload, which is my intent.

Sherman Alexie, a member of the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene tribe, is a poet, among other things. I know his name, but never read any of his work until recently. His work brings to life the downside of living on a reservation and being Native American. Poverty, depression, alcoholism, unemployment, are all a part of Native American life, especially in the southern reservations. Some of these reservations are the poorest in the nation. Alexie’s characters have something about them that reflects that way of life, and people who read his works feel something after reading it. Whether it be sadness, anger, respect, or other, at least they are feeling something for the Native American plight. I just finished reading The Powwow at the End of the World and I loved it.

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam

and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive

and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam

downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you

that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find

their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific

and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive

and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon

waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia

and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors

of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River

as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives

in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after

that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws

a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire

which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told

by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall

after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon

who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us

how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;

the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many

of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing

with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world (Alexie)

After reading this I realized that this poem told me a few things. The character or narrator is by himself, his people gone. You don’t realize where the poem is heading until you reach the end, which is why it makes it such a great read. However, opening up the poem in the opposite direction. We know that this man is alone. He is waiting for his people to come home, waiting for the salmon, waiting for fire and the dance. The narrator points out that people are telling him that he must forgive. I am assuming that he must forgive the white man or the government for destroying the land and water. However, for him to forgive, many things must happen. Everything has to be fixed, put back together in the natural cycle of life, and only then when everything is done, he will forgive. I am guessing that this seems impossible because when all is said in done, the Powwow he will dance at with his people, will be at the end of the world.

Alexie points out in his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, that “Native Americans “have a way of surviving. But it’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language, and land rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most” (“Sherman Alexie Biography). Native Americans have been through much, but they have survived. This reminds me of the Standing Rock Pipeline protests. This peaceful protest by Native Americans was protecting the land and water from a possible disaster, not to mention protecting their culture and burial grounds. They were shot with rubber bullets, pepper-sprayed, hosed down with water at freezing outside temperatures and yet they stayed.

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No matter what the energy companies or the oil companies say, there this pipeline, like any other, could burst at any time and pollute the land and water. There have been several oil line ruptures over the last few years. “In 2013, a Tesoro Logistics pipeline in North Dakota broke open and spilled 865,000 gallons of oil onto a farm. In 2010, an Enbridge Energy pipeline dumped more than 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan” (Healy 2016). In fact, in a study done in 2012 states that “more than half of the country’s pipelines were at least 50 years old” (Healy 2016). Many tribes from all over have joined the protest. The is the largest concentration of Native American tribes, standing together in history. Hollywood celebrities and military personnel have also joined the fight.

What I find most moving about the story is that members of the military have apologized for the atrocities done to them by the government in the past. A Marine Corps veteran, Michael A. Wood Jr., who is helping to organize the veterans standing with the protestors, points out “this country is repressing our people. If we’re going to be heroes, if we’re really going to be those veterans that this country praises, well, then we need to do the things that we actually said we’re going to do when we took the oath to defend the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic” (Wooten 2016). More and more people are joining the fight and this only proves, to me, that the Native Americans deserve recognition, and deserve more than the government has given them. When they united they formed a peaceful protest. Their beliefs, culture, morals, and values stood against men with weapons and orders to stop the protests. To me, that proves how strong and resilient the Native American people are.

The people that I photograph at powwows and these peaceful protestors are the same to me. The tribal affiliation means nothing to me. We are all people and I will continue to capture every moment I can. Capture the beautiful faces, the stoic expressions, the laughter, and the sadness, for all of these things make up the moral character of everyone I photograph. I feel that same sense of awe and respect now when I enter the powwow gate as I did when I went to my first. The Native American spirit is one with the earth and their resilience is to be respected. The end of the powwow is the beginning of something else.

Next to the fire, I take a seat with people I respect for everything they have gone through. I listen to their stories. My fascination with the history of different tribes pulls a close second to my love of photographing them. It’s a hobby and one I love to do on occasion. I don’t only photograph the bright regalia or the way someone moves; I photograph the person. Their faces and their expressions tell me how serious they are about what they are doing and how it affects them. And just like the turquoise jewelry, I inherited from my grandmother, and the cheap beaded necklace I still have, the beauty of each piece and what it means will never die. Just like the beauty, history, and traditions of all tribes will never pass away. The history will live on whether it be in photographs, sound recordings, or passed down from generation to generation.



1. Smudging - Smudging is a traditional Native American method of burning sacred herbs to produce a smoke cloud which is used in various cleansing or prayer ceremonies and purification or healing rituals. During the Smudging ceremonies and rituals, the smoke may be fanned over the person by the Shaman, Medicine Man or healer either using the hand, feathers or a fan. Smudging is the ritual cleansing of the mind, body and spirit (“Smudging”).

2. Fancy Shawl Dance – A Native American female dance that became more popular in the 1950’s. “Fancy shawl dancers are often said to resemble butterflies. The shawl that gives the dance its name - a fringed, colorful, often beaded or appliqued adaption of the traditional women’s blanket, extends over the length of the dancer’s “wingspan” (Whitefield-Madrano).

3. Powwow – A powwow is considered a celebration of life. It is called Wacipi (WAH CHEE PEE) in the Lakota/Dakota language and Ni-mi-win in Anishinabe (Chippewa/Ojibwa) language. This celebration is a time when people of all ages can gather together, to sing, dance, renew old friendships, make new friends, and share the beauty of life (“What is a Powwow?”).

4. Men’s Fancy Dance - The Oklahoma Feather Dancer or “fancy dancer” is one of the most popular style of dance and outfit seen at modern powwows. The fancy dance outfit, as such, has no tribal identity. The most obvious items in the fancy dance outfit are great amounts of loom-beaded sets of suspenders, belt cuffs, headband, and a set of armbands. The designs are usually matching in all items and of a rainbow feather or geometric design. Beaded medallions are on the forehead and bustles are also quite common. Occasionally a breastplate will be used in place of the beaded suspenders or in conjunction with them. The other trademark for fancy dancers is the use of large feather bustles. Currently most bustles are color-coordinated with the beadwork by using large amounts of feather hackles dyed the appropriate colors. The dance style is of two types: a basic simple step while dancing around the drum and a “contest” step with fast and intricate footwork combined with a spinning up and down movement of the body (“What is Powwow?”).

5. Regalia – For Native people, everything is imbued with spiritual meaning even in the context of the modern world, and especially when it comes to the expression of culture and identity. For dancers, not only is the act of dancing that expression, but the wearing of dance regalia is the visible manifestation of one's heritage. A dancer's regalia is one of the most powerful symbols of her Native identity and in that regard it can be considered sacred. This is one reason why it is incorrect to refer to dance regalia as a "costume." Many of the elements that make up a dance outfit are items often associated with ceremonial function such as eagle feathers and parts, animal hides, items that have been handed down through generations, as well as designs that may have been handed down or were given in dreams and visions (Gilio-Whitaker).

6. Women’s Traditional Dance - Women’s Traditional dance can be broken into two groups according to the type of regalia: buckskin and cloth. The oldest form of women’s dance style, is Buckskin. This is a dance of elegance and grace. The movement is smooth and flowing. The ladies wear fine, handcrafted buckskin dresses, decorated with intricate bead designs. Northern dresses are fully beaded on the shoulders, or cape. Southern ones, the beadwork is mainly used to accent. They are equally beautiful. The women carry fringed shawls over one arm. Ladies Cloth is a Southern Traditional form of women’s dress. This style is dance by the Kiowa’s, Osage, Ponca, and others. The dance is slow and graceful, much like the Women’s Buckskin style. In either case, much like the Men’s Traditional Dance, there are many tribal and regional differences in the outfitting of this women’s style (“What is a Powwow?”).

7. Jingle Dress Dance - Jingle dress is also called a prayer dress. There are differences in the origins of the dress among the tribes. The dress was seen in a dream, as an object to bring healing to afflicted people. It comes from the Northern tribe Ojibwa, or Chippewa, along the Canadian border. A medicine man’s granddaughter became very ill one day. In a dream, his spirit guides told him to make a jingle dress for her and have her dance in it. This, he was told would heal her. When the outfit was finished, the tribe assembled for a dance. On her first time around, the illness would not permit her to dance and she was carried. As time went on she was soon dancing in the circle. Jingle dresses are decorated with rolled up snuff can lids that are hung with ribbon. The ribbon is then sewed to the dress, the jingles placed close enough so they can hit together, causing a beautiful sound. If one were to close their eyes as the Jingle dancer passes, it would sound as though it were raining! (“What is Powwow?”)

8. Men’s Northern Traditional Dance - The Men’s Northern Traditional dance is a popular Northern style of dress and dance the traditional style, evolved from the well-known “old time Sioux” style of the early reservation period through the 1940’s. Although a clear distinction exists, one can see an obvious connection to the old-time Sioux Outfit, with the dancer drawing from this earlier style various elements to which he either adheres to or uses as a basis for his own interpretation. Therefore, this form of dancing that has evolved over the years, is the oldest form of Native American dancing. The movement in this style is one that is sometimes characterized as similar to a prairie chicken. The dancer is also said to be re-enacting the movement of a warrior searching for the enemy (“What is Powwow?”).

9. Men’s Southern Traditional Dance - Men’s Southern Traditional, often called the Straight Dance, from Oklahoma is a formal, tailored, prestigious form of Southern dance clothes. The overall effect is of reassuring solidity, with everything closely matched and coordinated. It looks as if it is planned all at one time. This dance has evolved from the Hethuska dances. It is believed that the Ponca created this style. The Hethuska are dances held by different societies. There are a lot of clothes to wear in the outfit, and accordingly the dance is slow and proud. The art of Straight dancing is in the little, sometimes unnoticed things, both in the movement and the outfit. Smoothness, precision with the song, knowledge of dance etiquette, and a powerful sense of pride mark the outstanding straight dancer (“What is Powwow?”).

10. Grass Dance - The Grass dance is a very popular style of dance today. Originally done as a warrior society dance, it has evolved over the years. It has further evolved into a highly competitive form of Northern dancing. Grass Dancing always stands out by virtue of two things: his dancing style and his outfit. His dancing has been described often by the words ‘gutsy’, ‘swinging’, ‘slick’, and ‘old-time.’ His outfit stands out by virtue of the almost complete absence of feathers, for aside from the roach feather, there are no bustles of any kind to be seen. The name “Grass Dance” comes from the custom of some tribes wearing braided grass in their belts. The unique parts of the northern outfit are the shirt, trousers, and aprons, to which yarn fringe, sequins, and beaded rosettes other designs are attached. The outfit makers are fond of using playing card designs-hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds. Hearts and rosettes are the most common. White fringe is preferred, however, gold, silver, and other light color fringe is also used. Bells are worn around the ankle. Mostly plains hard-soled or woodland soft-sole moccasins, and sneakers are worn (“What is Powwow?”).

11. Inter-Tribal Dance – The Inter-Tribal Dance is a dance where anyone is welcome to dance.

12. Sweetheart Dance – The Sweetheart Dance is a dance where it’s women’s choice. They will choose a man from the audience or their own husband, son, etc. in which to dance with.

13. Blanket Dance – This Blanket Dance is where a blanket is carried around the inner circle by a couple of the dancers. It is not a dance per say, however, the drum is still played. A donation is requested for either a certain person in the powwow group that needs assistance, or the chosen drum. The donation is to honor that person or group.


Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “The Powwow at the End of the World.” Poetryfoundation.org. Web. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/47895#poem.

“Curve Lake First Nation Annual Traditional Pow Wow.” Curvelakefirstnation.ca. PDF. http://www.curvelakefirstnation.ca/documents/powwow%20brochure%20-%20KC%20Edits.pdf.

“Dikaneisdi (Word List).” Cherokee.org. Cherokee Nation, n.d. Web. http://www.cherokee.org/AboutTheNation/Language/Dikaneisdi(WordList).aspx.

Healy, Jack. “North Dakota Oil Pipeline Battle: Who’s Fighting and Why.” Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2016. Web http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/02/us/north-dakota-oil-pipeline-battle-whos-fighting-and-why.html?_r=0.

Horse Capture, George. “Edward Curtis Shadow Catcher.” PBS.org. American Masters, PBS. Web. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/edward-curtis-shadow-catcher/568/.

Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. “Native American Dance Regalia: The Art of Powwow.” About.com. Native American History.About.com. Web. http://nativeamericanhistory.about.com/od/artmusicdance/a/Native-American-Dance-Regalia-The-Art-Of-Powwow.htm.

Mitchell, Jennifer. Personal Interview. 20 Nov. 2016.

“Sherman Alexie Biography.” Poetryfoundation.org. Web. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/sherman-alexie.

Smudging.” WarPaths2PeacePipes.com. Web. https://www.warpaths2peacepipes.com/native-american-culture/smudging.htm.

Squires, Mark. Personal Interview. 13 Nov. 2016.

“The Sacred Smoke Bowl Blessing – Smudging.” Horsekeeping LLC.com. Web. http://horsekeeping.com/smudging/smudging-about.htm.

Whitefield-Madrano, Autumn. “The Evolving Beauty of the Fancy Shawl Dance.” Indian County Today Media Network, LLC. Web. www.indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/03/20/evolving-beauty-fancy-shawl-dance-22719.

“What is a Powwow?” UND.edu. University of North Dakota Indian Association. Web. www.und.edu/orgs/indian-association/what-is-a-powwow.cfm.

“What is Powwow?” NCSU.edu. North Carolina State University. Web. https://oied.ncsu.edu/MSA/native-american-student-affairs/native-american-pow-wow/.

Wooten, Shante. “Veterans At Standing Rock Formally Apologize To Native Elders For War and Genocide by U.S. Military.” Natives-today.com. Native American News. 6 Dec. 2016. Web. http://natives-today.com/2016/12/06/veterans-at-standing-rock-formally-apologize-to-native-elders-for-war-and-genocide-by-u-s-military/

Sarah Johnson
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