Come July, the tribes converge in the hills south of Lame Deer, Mont., for the July 4 Powwow, largest of the year on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. This year our tribe assembled there too — we drove from Hays to rendezvous with our son, daughter and their families.
With hills and valleys blanketed in yellow clover, summer is simmering on the Rez. Ladies and gentlemen, start your drums — it’s powwow time!
The “powwow circuit” draws dancers, drums and concessionaires to a series of celebrations scattered throughout Indian country. Sufficiently skilled dancers can overcome the judges’ hometown bias and claim prize money to pay travel expenses.
We go to renew friendships, hike old haunts — and dance.
Somewhat resembling county fairs, powwows were part of the kids’ normal routine growing up on the Rez. We all embraced the jingling, pounding kaleidoscope of Grand Entry, powered by greasy fry-bread and starchy chokecherry pudding.
Sometimes, now as then, we just “walk around,” weaving through the tickle and rustle of feathered regalia as revelers leave their bleacher seats and lawn chairs, cruising around the bare circle between the covered arbor and the outer ring of concessions.
Wandering among the tents and tipis as the camp awakes at dawn, one senses a sublime calm, cool as dew, drifting on the mist. When the sunset finally glows, and the oppressive midday heat fades, the camp vibrates with renewed excitement. Dancers focus on their regalia, securely fastening the intricate components. (It’s “regalia,” too, not “costume” or “outfit.”) Soon they’ll join the festivities.
Our son and I are members of the Northern Cheyenne Gourd Dance Society. Gourd dancers’ regalia consists of a velvet sash, with a beaded cylinder at each end dangling from the waist; a bandolier of mescal beans hung over one shoulder and under the opposite arm; a long slender “blanket,” half dark blue and half red, draped across the shoulders, a beaded pendant pinned to the back; a feather fan; and a peyote rattle fashioned from a gourd.
In one Gourd Dance variation, men stand in a semicircle facing the drum, or the center of the arbor. Shaking the rattle and waving the fan, they dip and bob in place, matching their movements to changes in the drum’s cadence. Sometimes when the dancers are feeling frisky, they “holler,” uttering sharp cries such as “Hai! Hai!” in counterpoint to the rhythm. The rattling and hollering once served to scare away bad spirits, but nowadays it’s just a social thing.
Women in shawls dance in their own discrete semicircle behind the men; it’s mostly a man-dance.
A Kiowa friend maintained that the Cheyennes invented the Gourd Dance; a Cheyenne told me the Kiowas did. The allied tribes were not rivals for the honor, apparently.
I lucked out this year, participating in three separate Gourd Dance “sets.” Temperatures approached 100, but one doesn’t feel the heat or much of anything else while Gourd Dancing. The choreography can be relegated to Cerebral Cruise Control and muscle memory.
A sort of trance ensues as we reflexively synch our movements with the drum. Even so, one has to be a tad alert for the three emphatic thumps signaling that the song is about to end. A good dancer will end his movements emphatically and precisely on the last note of the song.
Relatively few people join in Gourd Dancing, but “intertribals” are a different matter. The central arena fills with dancers, and it’s “y’all come, eyyyy!” Anyone can dance — even visitors in shorts and straw hats. Hauxwell womenfolk wear traditional shawls, though sometimes the grandgirls flaunt them in non-traditional ways.
Early in our Rez years, and somewhat to our surprise, our bashful-ish daughter readily took to dancing, beginning as a “little girls fancy shawl dancer,” eventually graduating to “traditional women’s dancer.” She wore beaded leggings and a bone-pipe breastplate with feathers and furs in her blond braids, carrying a beaded white buckskin purse. Now her only regalia is a fringed shawl.
Drums and singers are plenty loud, but the dancers themselves make quite a racket.
A few decades ago it was rare to see “jingle dancers,” but now they have their own dance category. Their satin dresses are decorated with rows and tiers of metal cones that clink and jingle when they move. Originally the jingles were made from the tin lids of snuff cans, rolled into shiny ornaments. (Yep, it took a lot of snuff cans.) Nowadays look-alike cones are sold commercially.
To complement the pulsing drums, men decorate their ankles with metal bells, or more traditionally, clusters of clacking, rattling “dew-claws,” those hard nubbins behind a deer’s hooves. Every stomp makes noise — and there are scores of dancers stomping.
Many old acquaintances wanted to talk medicine, as usual. I’d last spoken with Margie at the previous powwow. Distraught by her upcoming heart surgery, she had clutched my hands in an iron grip. This time she squeezed my hand warmly; the surgery succeeded.
“You sewed me up several times,” boasted a smiling young man I didn’t remember. We shook hands. He snickered when I replied “aw, man, I really messed up on your face, didn’t I?”
Another man proudly displayed his previously broken nose, which he claimed I had set and sewed. I took his word for it. Always glad to take credit for something that turns out well.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.