BISMARCK, ND (KXNET) — The United Tribes Technical College is hosting their International Powwow this week, bringing the traditions of Native American tribes into the modern day.
Dance is a major part of Native American culture, and many tribes from both the United States and Canada incorporate ceremonial rhythms and movements in displays of celebration, worship, and storytelling. Even the term ‘powwow’ itself has its roots in the traditional art of dance. Originally, the term that the first Europeans to make contact with Native Americans associated with dance was the Algonquin word ‘Pau Wau’. Although the phrase actually meant “he dreams” in the Native language, Europeans came to accept the term as a way to refer to dancing — eventually being adopted as the general term to refer to Native American celebrations.
Some of the most important ceremonies conducted by many tribes throughout the area were done so via dance and drumming. The twisting and moving of the body, combined with certain attire, music, and movements, was meant to illustrate certain ideas or retell stories through a live medium.
These different styles and traditions of dance come alive at the United Tribes Powwow, where there are six major categories of dance that are practiced, judged, and voted on to determine winners of the get-together’s annual dance contest. They are as follows:
- Men’s Traditional Dancer — The most known and portrayed form of tribal dance, usually acting out the story of a battle or hunt. Dancers in this category usually wear beaded and quilted attire, as well as a circular bustle of eagle feathers.
- Men’s Grass Dancer — Grass Dancers wear attire decorated with colorful fringe. Their dance movements are meant to mimic grass swaying and blowing in the breeze.
- Men’s Fancy Dancer — As the name would imply, this category involves fancy movements including speedy steps, acrobatic movement, and spinning during the tribal dance. Fancy Dancers’ regalia are usually accompanied by two bright-colored bustles of feathers.
- Northern Plains Women’s Traditional Dancer — In contrast to the men’s form of traditional dancing, this dance symbolizes a woman watching and waiting for her warrior husband, father, or son to return home. The performance features subtle movements, most notably bending up and down, slight body turning, and shifting of the feet.
- Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancer — Dancers in this category wear more extravagant attire, including the aforementioned shawls, leggings, beaded moccasins, decorative cloth dresses, and jewelry. The dance’s flittering and delicate movements are meant to imply the movement of a butterfly.
- Women’s Jingle Dancer — A jingle dancing outfit traditionally consists of hundreds of small jingling cones made out of metal snuff can covers. Some legends state that the origin of this dance stems from women wearing jingle dresses who appeared to a holy man in dreams, teaching him how to create the dress, dance, and music there.
As one would expect, the United Tribes event features the five main tribes in North Dakota (Spirit Lake, Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold), who each bring their own unique spins on the outfits and dances.
More than 400 traditional dancers and 20 drum groups have been seen performing at this year’s powwow — if not only to showcase their heritage but to compete for prizes and titles as well. During the Grand Entry portion of the powwow, dancers from all categories enter the main arbor and begin their dances in a clockwise pattern around a staff with an eagle design. Here, they can score points based on their regalia, ability to keep time with the drum, and overall knowledge and skill in their chosen category. By the end of the event, winners will be chosen based on the overall quality of both aspects put together.
For many, these dances serve not only as a way to honor traditions, but to feel more in touch with their heritage, remember those who danced before them, or just to feel alive in the heat of the moment.
“It’s awesome,” recounts Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancer Grace Her Many Horses. “It’s energizing. If you’re having a bad day, you go out and go dancing. It just kind of revitalizes you, refreshes you, makes you feel good.”
These dances aren’t just practiced by more experienced members of the tribes. Every year, there are new participants in the competition — some as young as toddlers — who don their own attire and help keep the traditions alive, in their own competitions and regalia. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
For many entrants in the competition, dance isn’t just a hobby or tradition — it’s a lifestyle choice that can help them in other ways, too.
“It keeps me grounded,” explains young Jingle Dancer Asjha Tveter. ” It keeps me out of trouble. It’s healing. I make tons of friends and memories here at these dances with my family. It keeps me connected to my roots, too.”
Tveter’s statements are echoed by two more young dancers, who state that there’s more to it than just an obligation for them as well.
“For my dance, especially,” states Men’s Fancy Dancer Xavier Little Head, “those songs bring out the best in myself, and I can express the way I feel out there when I’m dancing. It’s pretty empowering, I feel way more confident, I just have a really good feeling, and hopefully, other people have the same feeling when they see me dance.”
“I think it’s important to do these dances to keep people out of trouble,” explains Men’s Grass Dancer Ellias Her Many Horses, “but to keep our culture going. Even if you’re not really connected with your culture, it’s a good way to help encourage others to dance and stay connected to your heritage.”
At its core, the idea remains the same: keeping traditions alive into the modern day in a manner that is both spiritual and emotional.
“It’s a tradition,” continued Grace. “When you dance, you’re not only dancing for yourself, you’re dancing for those who have gone on, and then you’re dancing for those who are still coming, and it just continues after that.”
All are welcome to attend the powwow, but much like any other cultural or important event, there are rules of etiquette that UTTC would politely ask spectators and guests to follow. Here’s a quick reminder of important manners to know before you go.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions about traditions or dances, but be respectful and do not speak when elders are talking. In addition, listen to the Master of Ceremonies during performances, as he will instruct you when to take off headwear.
- There will be lawn chairs around the area. Please leave them alone, as they are for the dancers. Bringing your own chair is permitted.
- Do not touch the dancers or their regalia.
- Photographers are asked not to enter the dance area to take photos. Furthermore, please attain permission from dancers before taking their photos, as some may have personal or spiritual reasons for not wishing to be photographed.
- When a blanket dance is announced, if possible, please donate when the blanket passes you, as all money collected will be donated to the person or drum group being honored in the dance.
The Dance Contest serves as one of the major events of the powwow and continues all throughout the weekend’s festivities, but there are also plenty of other things to enjoy at the celebration. Native crafts, cuisine, and art will be sold throughout the festival, and those who already collect or create their own works will be able to trade with others.
Anyone is welcome to attend the Powwow and immerse themselves in the culture and spectacle of the Powwow. Prices are $25 for a weekend pass or $15 for a single day. Children and seniors older than 65 receive free admission.
For a complete list of events taking place at the event, please see the official website for the United Tribes International Powwow.