‘Dancing is prayer’: Native American Powwow season in full swing

Native American families travel the US throughout spring and summer to celebrate and compete in competitions

Siliye Pete, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, wore an outfit that represented not only herself but her family and tribe. In addition to hair ties made by her stepmother, her otter skins were a gift from her father, her necklace was made by her mother and her bracelets came from her niece. She held a pink umbrella that matched her sparkling-pink acrylic nails. The otter skins wrapped around her braids were tied with pink beaded hair ties, and a pink shawl was draped around her shoulders.

“Everyone knows pink is my colour,” said Pete, a 24-year-old teacher. “My stepmom made the hair ties, and I made the rest of my outfit to match them. My nails were just a vibe for the summer.”

Pete was one of hundreds of dancers attending the 122nd annual Arlee Celebration powwow held over the Fourth of July weekend in Arlee, Montana, a town of fewer than 600 in the valley of the Flathead Reservation in the US, which spans nearly 1.3 million acres of mountainous landscape and rolling hills. The celebration — a mix of dance and drum competitions, traditional ceremonies and games — serves as a space for multiple tribes to gather to compete, eat traditional foods, meet new babies, and visit with relatives and old friends.

Dancing is prayer. We pray and dance for the people who can’t be there

—  Rachel Arlee Bowers

The five-day event, hosted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes, which have approximately 8,000 members, began with a memorial dance. A procession of tribal members entered the arena holding photographs of loved ones who had died the year before, as each of the names was read over a loudspeaker.

The next day, the small town welcomed hundreds of dancers and singers from across the US and Canada to compete in various categories divided by age groups. Children, teenagers, men, women and elders each participated in fancy dance, traditional style, chicken dance, grass dance and jingle dance, with outfits designed for specific categories.

Fancy dance outfits for both men and women are known for elaborate ribbon design and bright colours that swirl while they perform footwork with increasing speed, and acrobatic steps and motions based on a double step.

In contrast, those competing in traditional style wear garments that are more subdued, matching the controlled nature of the women’s traditional dance, which involves bending the knees with a slight up-and-down motion of the body. The chicken dance replicates the strut of a prairie chicken, while the grass dance, with outfits distinguished by their long fringe that sways as the dancer moves, is meant to imitate the stamping of grass.

Jingle dresses, worn to perform the jingle dance, are recognisable by the unique pattern of hanging metal cones, or jingles, that create the distinctive sound for which the dress is named.

If she understands herself as both an individual and as part of this community she will never get lost

—  Gwen Lankford

An explosion of ribbons, cloth and jingles covered Gwen Lankford’s diningroom table in the months leading up to the powwow. Her 13-year-old daughter Cecilia Spencer outgrew her pre-pandemic jingle dress, and the pair spent hours choosing fabric and building a new outfit with 200 metal cones.

“The change from 11-years-old to 13 is so big,” Lankford said. “Not just physically, but mentally, too. She is coming into her own identity and needs to have independence and ownership over her dress.”

Lankford said that designing the dress with her daughter allowed Cecilia to see herself reflected in the outfit. “She needs to know who she is so she can come back to that when the world gets rocky,” Lankford said. “If she understands herself as both an individual and as part of this community, she will never get lost.”

Because of the pandemic, this summer is the first in two years that many families were able to travel for the powwow season, which begins in April and ends in September. Families, dancers and singers from across the country spend the summer living out of their vehicles, camping and travelling the circuit of powwows, known as the powwow trail, with these gatherings held by different tribal communities every weekend throughout the season.

The Kickingwoman family, from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, spent the months before the powwow season preparing for a summer on the road, attending a different powwow each weekend.

“We don’t work in the summer. This is what we do; this is how we make money,” said George Kickingwoman, a Blackfeet singer in the drum group Black Lodge. The Kickingwoman children compete in the dances while their father sings. In addition to the dance competitions, powwows host singing contests for drum groups. All categories have prizes that often include cash as well as blankets and beadwork.

For 80-year-old Rachel Arlee Bowers, an elder whose family the town is named after, seeing the arena full of dancers was healing. “Dancing is prayer,” Arlee Bowers said. “We pray and dance for the people who can’t be there. Those that are sick and those that want to dance but can’t. People like me.”

Sitting in a wheelchair in her traditional buckskin dress with her Chihuahua, Tiny, on her lap, Arlee Bowers recalled when Native Americans were not allowed to practice their religion and were persecuted for conducting tribal ceremonies. It was not until 1978, when congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, that Native Americans were allowed to exercise their right to traditional ceremonies and celebrations.

You keep putting things together, changing them and mixing it up. It takes a lifetime

—  Bob Woodcock

Given that legacy, passing down pieces of regalia from generation to generation means much more to Ansen Eagletail, a 14-year-old chicken dancer who wore a headpiece called a roach that once belonged to his grandfather. It’s one of the oldest pieces in his family, and its history makes it Ansen’s favourite. His family, of the Tsuut’ina Nation in Alberta, spend their summers on the powwow trail. The Arlee powwow is the fourth of 13 powwows the family plans to attend this summer.

Like Ansen, many dancers collect pieces over their lifetimes, and as they grow, their outfits change with them — serving as a reflection of both their past and present selves. Many young dancers who outgrew the outfits they wore before the pandemic debuted new regalia this year. Although some were completely new creations, most included small pieces from their previous outfits, initiating the beginning of countless transformations their outfits will undergo.

“You keep putting things together, changing them and mixing it up,” said Bob Woodcock, a 59-year-old Salish traditional dancer wearing beadwork that his grandmother made for him 40 years ago, a breastplate that was a gift from his uncle and a hat that belonged to a late relative. “It takes a lifetime.” — This article originally appeared in The New York Times.