This past weekend I attended the Little Shell Pow Wow at First People’s Buffalo Jump State Park near Ulm, Montana. This was a traditional pow wow, not a competitive one, and the atmosphere was relaxed and family-oriented.
I arrived early but not in time to manage to get a parking spot in the parking lot! Volunteers were very organized though and they had a system of directing vehicles in a pattern on the surrounding grassy areas. The state park manager also drove a golf cart, assisting folks who wanted a ride from the parking area to the dance arena.
As I walked towards the dance arena I saw three Little Shell tipis set up, one decorated with painted horses. I’ve heard that it’s easy to set up tipis but I think you’d need a lot of practice. These were large tipis with long tipi poles and I doubt that I’d have much luck getting them positioned so they would hold the canvas correctly. Food and craft vendors were set up along the way too.
Grand Entry began with honored individuals carrying flags, and a prayer for a successful gathering was offered. Dancers, both men and women, also young kids followed.
Cameras came out and those of us watching were mesmerized. There is no way to describe how so many senses can be affected by a pow wow. It began with the solemnness of the opening prayer. That was followed by the scent of sweetgrass, the sound of the drums and singing by the drum groups, combined with bright colors, swishing shawls and jingling dresses. All seemed to happen at one time and it was amazing.
Protocol, tradition and etiquette are followed too. One example is that the grass dancers are the first to enter the dance arena and they symbolically stomp the grass down. This provides an easier dance area when the rest of the dancers enter. There is also protocol on how the dancers enter the arena. They start from the south entrance, go clockwise with the drum and follow the movement of the sun, moon and stars.
More protocol dictates that if an eagle feather is dropped the pow wow is stopped and a ceremony is performed to pick it up. Eagle feathers are traditionally earned.
My favorite dance is the women’s/girls’ jingle dance. I learned that it originated with the Ojibwa in Minnesota and Canada in the 1940’s and it is a medicine dance that has become part of pow wows.
Next favorite dance – the men’s/boys’ chicken dance which originated with the Blackfeet. The dancer moves to mimic the courtship ritual of the prairie chicken (grouse). I’ve watched the grouse dance on early spring mornings and it is rigorous. Sometimes you’ll hear grouse dancing referred to as drumming or strutting but no matter what you call it, it’s a workout and fun to see. There was a young chicken dancer at the pow wow and he was spot-on for this dance.
Other dancers at the Little Shell Pow Wow did the fancy shawl dance (women/girls), traditional dance which is typically men/boys but women now perform this style, and a men/boys fancy dance. Since this wasn’t a competitive pow wow, dancers weren’t separated and it was exciting to see the variety of regalia and dance styles all at once.
Three different drum groups kept the dancers moving. One was from Hays on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, one from Helena and I didn’t find out the home base of the third group. I noticed women drumming and singing and I hadn’t ever see that before.
This was the second year the Little Shell tribe has held a pow wow at First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park. The Little Shell are a landless tribe and use Great Falls for their tribal headquarters. Enrolled membership is over 5,000 and they are still working to garner federal recognition.
My favorite part of the Little Shell Pow Wow was seeing the variety of ages as families participated in this tradition. I saw lots of young children dressed in regalia and several of them had their dance steps practiced to perfection.
Family unity, sharing and teaching traditions on a warm summer day – pretty impressive.