I Remember Pow Wows…Remember When…

I Remember Pow Wows…Remember When…

 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)

Last Updated on August 14, 2016 by Paul G

10 Comments on “I Remember Pow Wows…Remember When…”

  • Avatar for Mikey



    I to am concerned of the things that I see in the dance arena lately. Danced Straight Dance at many powwows in the 70’s and 80’s. Just recently returned to the arena after many years away (biggest regret of my life) so the changes seem even bigger to me. The biggest thing that concerns me is the non traditional elements that have creeped into the traditional dance (southern traditional, northern tradtional, Jingle, etc). These dances should not become contemporary. Other styles of dance that are not traditional can continue to evolve ( fancy, fancy shawl etc) but it is hard to see non traditional elements in traditional dances.

  • Avatar for Ruth Swaney

    Ruth Swaney


    I thank all of you for sharing. On the Facebook site, you’ll see there were many reactions to the photo of myself and my sister-in-law because we were wearing men’s headdresses. With over 500 tribes existing today (there were hundreds more, by the way), it’s safe to say there are many tribes’ culture and traditions that we don’t know about and the only way to learn is to share it if appropriate. There are many practices in my tribes that I would not publicly share, nor are they displayed or performed in public such as at a powwow. The mention of the jingle dress is a good example of how some tribes have evolved in their view and practice of something that was originally regarded as a “medicine dance” or healing dance. Then again, in my opinion, the entire powwow today is not a close representation of what it once was, speaking only from my tribes’ perspective. We should all respect and have consideration for what others believe, and always “do as the Romans do” when we are visitors and guests in others’ homeland.

    • Avatar for Gordon Law

      Gordon Law


      Ruth, I enjoyed the article very much, especially your giving credit to George Flett for his efforts in regard to furthering Chicken dancing. I considered George as my older brother so, I commend your respect for him and Cliff SiJohn also. They were cousins. I have photographed Powwows for both these men. They both helped me in my endeavors at their celebrations. Lately though, I have been saddened by some participants who have asked me not to photograph them. I shoot for the whim of the sponsoring tribe and I receive no compensation for my work. It is sad that the language, dress, dances, food sources, culture and so much more has been steadily removed from Native People. I feel that those who ask not to be photographed are in their own way helping eliminate historical reference to the rest of the world. Anyway, thank you for the article. Gordon Law

  • Avatar for Vallorie



    I find it very disturbing that Jingle dresses are worn for competition. This is a healing dress only! It’s one thing to dance in it and another to wear it to compete.
    It should only be worn by Ojibwe, yet I see girls, women of other nations wearing it.
    Even for healing, it should be requested and worn by Ojibwe women who know the healing dances.
    Women/girls need to respect the teachings that go with the Jingle dress and to honour those teachings.

    • Avatar for Katy Bear

      Katy Bear


      I am a young Algonquin women and a mother of 4 children. My husband is Sioux. We took our oldest daughter to her first pow wow at the age of 3 when my oldest son started dancing hoop. She was in love with dancing and she took up her passion for Jingle dance when she was 4 and now has been dancing Jingle for 7 yrs and can now dance Fancy Shawl and her younger brother and younger sister have found the passion to dance. My daughter dances with her heart. She has taught my youngest girl to dance like her with Fancy Shawl and my youngest boy the honor to dance grass. She never thinks of money or winning but just to dance for others always. I believe that dancing is not just for a tribe or nation but that if you have respect, the knowledge of culture and help with teachings from elders and a heart that is true then dance from your heart and keep the culture alive. No disrespect intended but we need these teaching to be passed on for many generations to come. Meegwetch

      • Avatar for toni



        Katy Bear,

        Thank you. I meant no disrespect either, I guess what I was mostly in agreement with is the competition for money aspect. Our culture and customs need to be carried on by our children so the more who learn and respect them the better.


  • Avatar for Ruth Swaney

    Ruth Swaney


    I erroneously stated that the photo credit is Char-Koosta News. The correct photo credit is Gerri Pearson. My apologies!

  • Avatar for dolly thomas

    dolly thomas


    i just want to say that i have seen so many changes in the powwow trail today as many young people do not respect their regalia and the teachings with them nor do all the young women who go to powwow on their moon and dance and go around drums as a dancer i find it very difficult as i do not compete i go out to dance and pray for those who need it i do not have 5 or 6 outfits i only have 1 which i take care of in a good way i long for those days when we all sat together as family and took care of one another and sat together now kids run all over in their regalia they get lost no one cares for them i feel so sad espically in our own powwow where money means more than prayers… i always remember one elder mary black kettle who came every year andd spoke of this and today still it falls on deaf ears so sad …i just wanted to share this from my heart and how i was taught love hugs laughter dolly

    • Avatar for Ruth



      Dolly, in my opinion, today’s powwows are a long way off from their original purpose, just speaking from my tribes’ perspective. The competition and prize money has taken over everything, and unfortunately it has spread into the other parts including singing, contemporary regalia, and so on. We seem to have lost the simple meaning of celebrating for life itself, as this was my tribes’ traditional way; in fact our Salish word for “powwow” literally means “everyone celebrating”. Thank you for sharing.

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