BISMARCK, ND (KXNET) — The United Tribes Technical College is hosting its international powwow this week, bringing the traditions of Native American tribes into modern times.
Dance is an important part of Native American culture, and many tribes in the United States and Canada incorporate ceremonial rhythms and movements into displays of celebration, worship, and storytelling. Even the term “powwow” itself has its roots in the traditional art of dance. The term that the first Europeans to come into contact with Native Americans associated with dance was originally 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 the dance—eventually adopted as a general term for Native American celebrations.
Some of the most important ceremonies performed by many tribes in the region were done through dancing and drumming. The twisting and movement of the body, combined with certain clothing, music and movement, was intended to illustrate certain ideas or tell stories through a live medium.
These different dance styles and traditions come to life at the United Tribes Powwow, where six major dance categories are practiced, judged and voted on to determine the winners of the gathering’s annual dance competition. They are the following:
- Male Traditional Dancer – The best known and most performed form of tribal dance, usually telling the story of a battle or hunt. Dancers in this category usually wear beaded and quilted garments, along with a circular bustle of eagle feathers.
- Men’s Grass Dancer — Grass dancers wear clothing adorned with colorful fringe. Their dance moves are meant to mimic grass swaying and blowing in the breeze.
- Men’s Fancy Dancer – As the name suggests, this category involves fancy moves including quick steps, acrobatic moves, and spins during the tribal dance. Fancy dancer badges usually come with two brightly colored feathers.
- Traditional Northern Plains Women’s Dancer – Unlike the traditional men’s dance form, this dance symbolizes a woman watching and waiting for her warrior husband, father or son to come home. The performance includes subtle movements including up and down bends, slight rotation of the body and shifting of the feet.
- Women’s Fancy Shawl Dancer – Dancers in this category wear more extravagant attire, including the aforementioned shawls, leggings, beaded loafers, decorative fabric dresses, and jewelry. The fluttering and delicate movements of the dance are meant to involve the movement of a butterfly.
- Women’s Jingle Dancer – A jingle dance outfit traditionally consists of hundreds of small jingle cones made from metal snuffbox lids. Some legends claim that the origin of this dance comes from women wearing jingle dresses who appeared to a holy man in dreams, teaching him how to create the dress, the dance and the music there.
As you might expect, the United Tribes event features the five major tribes of North Dakota (Spirit Lake, Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux, Standing Rock Sioux, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold), which each bring their own unique twists on outfits and dances.
More than 400 traditional dancers and 20 drum groups were seen at this year’s powwow, not only to showcase their heritage, but also to compete for prizes and titles. During the grand entrance of the powwow, dancers of all categories enter the main arbor and begin their dances clockwise around a staff with an eagle motif. Here they can score points based on their badges, ability to keep time with the drum, and general knowledge and skill in the chosen category. At the end of the event, winners will be chosen based on the overall quality of both aspects combined.
For many, these dances not only serve to honor traditions, but also to feel more in touch with their heritage, to remember those who danced before them, or simply to feel alive in the heat of the moment.
“It’s awesome,” says Grace Her Many Horses, female fantasy shawl dancer. “It’s energizing. If you’re having a bad day, go out and dance. It revitalizes you, refreshes you, makes you feel good.
These dances are not only practiced by more experienced members of the tribes. Each year there are new contestants – some as young as toddlers – who wear their own outfits and help keep the traditions alive, in their own competitions and badges. The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.
For many contestants, dancing isn’t just a hobby or a tradition, it’s a lifestyle choice that can help them in other ways as well.
“It keeps me grounded,” says young jingle dancer Asjha Tveter. “It keeps me out of trouble. It is healing. I make tons of friends and memories here at these dances with my family. It also allows me to stay connected to my roots.
Tveter’s statements are echoed by two other young dancers, who state that there is more than just an obligation for them too.
“For my dancing, in particular,” says male dancer Xavier Little Head, “these songs bring out the best in me and I can express how I feel when I dance. It’s quite empowering, I feel a lot more confident, I just have a really good feeling, and I hope other people have the same feeling when they see me dancing.
“I think it’s important to do these dances to keep people out of trouble,” says male turf dancer Ellias Her Many Horses, “but also to maintain our culture. Even if you’re not really connected to your culture, it’s a great way to encourage others to dance and stay connected to your heritage.
At its core, the idea remains the same: to keep traditions alive in the modern world in a way that is both spiritual and emotional.
“It’s a tradition,” Grace continued. “When you dance, you’re not just dancing for yourself, you’re dancing for those who are gone, then you’re dancing for those who are still coming, and it continues after that.”
All are welcome to attend the powwow, but as with any other cultural or significant event, there are rules of etiquette that UTTC would politely ask spectators and guests to follow. Here is a little reminder of the important good manners to know before leaving.
- Don’t be afraid to ask about traditions or dances, but be respectful and don’t talk when the elders are talking. Also, listen to the master of ceremonies during the performances, as he will tell you when to take off the headgear.
- There will be lawn chairs around the area. Please leave them alone, as they are for dancers. You are allowed to bring your own chair.
- Do not touch the dancers or their badges.
- Photographers are asked not to enter the dance area to take pictures. Also, please get permission from the dancers before taking their photos, as some may have personal or spiritual reasons for not wishing to be photographed.
- When a cover dance is announced, if possible, please donate when the cover passes you, as all money raised will be donated to the person or drum group honored in the dance.
The dancing competition is one of the major events of the powwow and continues throughout the weekend festivities, but there are also many other things to enjoy during the celebration. Indigenous 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.
Everyone 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 over 65 enjoy free entry.
For a full list of events taking place during the event, please see the official website of the United Tribes International Powwow.