As I approach my 53rd birthday near the end of this year, I’ve been reflecting that I’m really not THAT old, but sometimes I think I am, particularly when I think of how much things have changed in the powwow world.
A few decades ago, powwows were becoming somewhat of a novelty on my home reservation in northwest Montana. Traditionally, there were many celebrations at different places during the “Celebration Moon” (July). The annual 4th of July powwow in Arlee, Montana, has been going officially since 1898 excepting near the turn of the century when the Indian agent forbade that year’s celebration due to quarantine for smallpox. My first memory of that gathering was in the 1960s: The dance arbor was at the center of the grounds, virtually all the singers were older gentlemen, and most of the dancers were males. It seemed very casual, lighthearted, and family oriented.
Continual encroachment of the reservation, beginning in 1904 with the Flathead Allotment Act and then followed by the 1910 Homestead Act, effectively displaced my tribal people to its current outnumbered ratio of 4:1 non-Indians to Indians. And sadly, the most damage done was the loss of our languages followed by a steady erosion of all other things of our culture: diet, dress, religion, songs, and dances. By the middle of the 20th century, it appeared the reservation would be destined for termination, and in fact such a bill was proposed in Congress. Fewer and fewer people were fluent in the language, and fewer still were actively practicing any aspects of traditional culture. It seemed that the Flathead Reservation and its tribal people were the examples of how well the “Indianness” could be erased if certain pressure was brought to bear on it.
Our traditional songs and dances might have well passed into obscurity had it not been for the pan-Indian “powwow” that originated perhaps first in wild west shows and pageants such as seen at the annual Pendleton Roundup. Indeed, there were references in our tribes’ early newspaper of “pageants” whereby songs and dances were performed.
As Indian people evolved into modern American society, it was inevitable that we would travel to new places and begin adopting and adapting to new trends. Our tribes had always borrowed (and stole) other tribes’ regalia, songs, and dances so powwow customs and traditions were fair game. In my Salish people’s tradition, women participated only in certain dances such as round dances, canvas dances, memorial dances, and scalp dances. The regular dancing, or “war” dancing as we call it, was for the warriors and was led by the war dance chief. In modern times, my tribes’ first new tradition was that women joined the “war” dancing the same as men, going counterclockwise around the drum.
It has been my privilege to see how the various dance styles have emerged such as the women’s fancy dance, grass dance, the jingle dance, and the chicken dance.
In the early 1970s, girls and women were typically dancing in buckskin dresses. Young girls danced the fancy style and then transitioned to the more sedate traditional style as they got older. By the mid-1970’s the young ladies adopted the cloth dress covered with a shawl, followed by more elaborate beadwork and accessories. Another evolving accessory has been the addition of plumes and feathers, which were rarely if ever worn when I was a youngster.
In 1976 I was at the Starr School powwow near Browning, Montana. We were watching the young boys dance. Back in those days, the category was simply by age division; there weren’t any different styles. There were the usual round bustle and fancy bustle dancers. Then there was one youngster who had heavy yarn fringe, no bustles, and his movements were slow and deliberate. An Oglala Lakota elder, Tom Brown, was sitting by me and he pointed at that young man and said, “There’s the winner.” He did indeed win that contest. I later learned he was doing the grass dance. The following year at the University of Montana Kyi-Yo Indian Club Powwow, a young man was dressed in a fringed outfit, dancing the grass style among the multitudes of bustle dancers. Dean Fox would go on to win the men’s contest. In the years that followed, many powwows continued to combine grass dancers with fancy bustle dancers. It has only been since about the 1990’s that grass dancing has been rightfully placed in its own category.
In the early 1980s, at a powwow in Butte, Montana, was my first recollection of seeing jingle dress dancers. Esther Perry and her daughters were dressed in jingle dresses and their steps were different from fancy or traditional. Like the grass dancers, it was some years before jingle would be placed in its own category.
The last new category—which is actually one of the oldest styles—to emerge is the chicken dance. Depending on where you are, some tribes may refer to it as prairie chicken (ruffed sage grouse). The dancers emulate the rooster which is trying to attract the attention of the female, and the dance style is energetic and flashy. This category has become one of my favorites, perhaps because of the dedication of the late George Flett, Spokane, in promoting it through his special contest at the annual Spokane Labor Day Celebration in Wellpinit, Washington. As an artist, George promoted the style through his artwork. In 1993 he and his family began sponsoring a contest which drew dancers from all over North America such as Guy Fox, Richard Street, Leon Old Elk Stewart, Alex Meninick, Nat Iron Heart, Dustin Whitford, Rooster Topsky, and Rodney FirstStrike. Along with his friend the late Cliff Sijohn, Coeur d’Alene, they passed on their knowledge of the chicken dance and its origins within the Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, and Salish people. Had it not been for their dedication, this dance style would not be alive today.
Today I am happy that my tribes have revived many of their traditional dances and they have brought them back each year during the “Old Style Day” at the annual 4th of July Celebration. This year it was my honor to take part in the Scalp Dance with my sister-in-law, Ruth Hall Swaney, as she and my brother were married in that traditional way.
My powwow season has been very light this year, but it is never far from my heart. I wish you all safe and happy travels on your powwow trail.
(Photo by Char-Koosta News – 2013 Arlee 4th of July Celebration)