Powwows — little understood, often feared
People we talk to say they are curious about the many powwows in North Dakota, but they aren’t sure if they were welcome to attend. POSH! Perish the thought! The powwows of the MHA Nation await your visit.
You are invited, welcomed and encouraged! Go!
A long time ago, 75 years ago, the government was afraid of Indian tribes. So, it outlawed powwows by all the tribes in America from the late 1880s to about 1930. It falsely claimed the celebrations were a way to stir up war against whites. They aren’t. And you are welcome to attend, especially those of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation or MHA Nation of the North Dakota Badlands.
I like attending powwows. So, what you’re about to read here is not totally unbiased. My particular affinity is for those powwows that are less commercial and more traditionally authentic.
I was adopted and given my Indian name at an old authentic traditional powwow, the Twin Buttes Powwow. That was a huge honor for this white guy with Scotch Irish roots.
I have personally been involved in tribal events other than powwows at both Standing Rock (Lakota) and Fort Berthold (MHA Nation). I socialized at Fort Peck, Pine Bluff, Sisseton, and Spirit Lake. However, I feel most comfortable, most welcome and most “at home” at the powwows held by the MHA Nation, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
I lived in New Town on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation for nearly a decade and attended annual powwows in the regional segments of Fort Berthold. However, I never made it to the Little Shell Powwow.
2019, it was the time
I could go because I turned down my annual schedule conflict — the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. That meant, this year – Little Shell.
An exciting revelation
The Little Shell Powwow at New Town, on the Four Bears Peninsula, has a very favorable reputation, and I can see why. The annual celebration is on the west side of the river, south of the Four Bears Bridge and the Four Bears Casino.
I was especially taken with the patriotic emphasis. The beginning of every powwow is lead by the eagle staff and the flags. That’s part of the Grand Entry on the main event day. Wow!
The weather was not ideal this year. I mean, come on! It’s August. It’s the dog days of summer. But geez, 72 degrees is not August dog day temperatures. And the rain! August is normally dry. Not this year. Since it was cool and damp, I wasn’t sure how well attended would be the Little Shell Powwow.
The Four Bears Peninsula was packed!
Visitors are more than merely invited to the powwow.
They are welcomed and accommodated. Many white folks I know are leery of attending a powwow.
I think it is their lack of exposure that leads to fearful ignorance.
The events are very family-oriented.
Children take part in the dance events, socialize and coax their parents to buy toys at the vendors.
Then there is the food. For me, it’s not an “official” powwow until I get some fried bread or an Indian Taco.
In fact, unlike many German festivals, rodeos, musical events and of course biker events, there is no booze at a powwow.
Participants do love coffee and traditional foods. But no booze is sold. In fact, campers at a powwow can be kicked out if they are boozing.
When I walked up to the arbor, I could hear the opening prayers, some in traditional language, and some in English, Christian prayers asking for safety, and blessings, especially for visitors.
The most spectacular event in a powwow is the Grand Entry. It’s a brilliantly colored display of individual creativity. Each dance wears garb that is symbolic and meaningful to them, often handed down from earlier generations and updated. Each day of the three or four-day event of a powwow, the Grand Entry encourages dancers to be on time. Their participation helps them earn points toward prized money.
The dancing and the drumming is nearly overpowering as this video shows:
Around the perimeter of the dance area, the arbor, are drum groups from across the western U.S. and Canada. One by one they are called on by the announcer to drum and sing a traditional tribal song. Crow, Pawnees, Shoshone, Chippewa songs are drummed and sung.
The announcer describes each group of dancers entering, men, women, teens, tiny tots and the subcategories of each demographic.
The Little Shell Powwow is very popular. Dancers from across Canada and the U.S. come to it. As the weekend progresses, dancers and their costumes are judged and very large prizes are awarded, rivaling the “purses” earned at rodeos – three, four and five-figure purses.
So, as the Grand Entry progresses, the dance area is filled with a kaleidoscope of colors. I watched the undulating spectrum of bright colors and would switch my gaze from the entire collection to one individual dancer and their intricate costume. Amazing, the color and design of each unique outfit.
Patriots and Vets
The leading event after the prayers and before the grand entry is the presentation of the flag. The Eagle Staff, the U.S. Flag and the American Legion posts always lead the grand entry.
The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara are proud to have served the U.S. Military. They are proud to be Americans and it shows. For nearly an hour, veterans and active-duty military were honored individually and by groups.
Among those honored at the Little Shell Powwow was Nathan Goodiron.
He was killed on Thanksgiving Day 2005 in Qarabagh, Afghanistan, during Operation Enduring Freedom. His service and his mother Harriet Goodiron were recognized at the Little Shell Powwow. (The honor for Nathan continues a long legacy of his family as members of what some call the “warrior clan” and are recognized usually at the Mandaree Powwow earlier in the summer. Nathan’s father, grandfather and great grandfather, a WWI code-talker, are recognized in the patriotic moments at the Mandaree powwow.)
Active-duty soldiers were recognized and gifted. Many of the essential elderly members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara were also gifted with blankets and cash donations.
Later, I wandered through the camping area, a huge community of happiness, food and probably more than a few instances of budding puppy love.
I really didn’t want to leave, but with a two-and-a-half-hour drive home, it was time. On the way home, the bright images from the Grand Entry filled my visual memory bank, while the mental assessment of the long patriotic ceremony will last a long time.
I encourage you. Attend one of the many summer powwows hosted by the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara. Not sure what is going on? The powwow announcers know people from several communities, both white and native are there and so they’ll explain much of what is happening. A respectfully-asked question of that tribal member standing next to you will yield willing answers.
Perhaps we’ll see each other at the Twin Buttes Powwow, my adopted home for powwows.
The honor for veterans goes beyond the powwow. It is on full display at the Old Scouts Society Cemetery near White Shield. It has an amazing history you can read about here.
The Beautiful Badlands ND events calendar lists powwows and other events from all over western North Dakota and eastern Montana. Here’s the link to the calendar.
Our Facebook page is a clearinghouse of stories, photos, and information from the Badlands. Here’s the link to that Facebook Page.