The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people celebrate their heritage this summer in the badlands. The rugged backdrop makes for a rich frame for the powwows such as the Mandaree Powwow, Twin Buttes and Little Shell. And you’re invited to come take a look, spend an afternoon or evening.
Powwows are happy family times for reunions, and contests. Judges evaluate the dancers, and winners can come away with thousands of dollars from each of the powwows.
We visited the Mandaree Powwow Celebration in July. It’s one of the earliest. Though it was 95 degrees that day, dancing continued — hot. We watched the ladies in their fine regalia — lots of detail and work went into their apparel.
In the shade, spectators and family visited and watched the contests.
Do some shopping
Food vendors attracted thirsty and hungry people.
Dancers prepared to make new regalia shopped at the temporary stores.
If you get to go to a powwow this summer, relax and enjoy yourself.
Since it’s a family celebration, there are no drugs, no alcohol, but lots of food. Park where you can. Sometimes security people direct you to a parking area.
Then, prepare to walk.
Along the way to the dance area, you’ll likely see dancers getting last minute adjustments.
The Concentric Layout
The powwow area is a circle with the center the “dance arena.” Around that is the drum groups and singers.
Then behind them, usually in the shade are the families and spectators.
Outside the whole area are the vendors and the food service. That’s what I like. Fry bread or other traditional food is great.
Make your way to the viewing stand. It may be tough getting a good place so, plan on SRO–Standing Room Only toward the back.
The most colorful time to enjoy a powwow is the grand entry. And boy is it grand. Prayers, and honors start the entry — and high honor is paid to veterans. Then comes a seemingly endless line of dancers filling the area. Very colorful.
Listen to the announcer
When you listen to the announcer, you’ll pick up on a lot of understanding. He will announce the dance; Fancy Dance, Grass Dance. One tribal elder told me that they see powwows much like a rodeo — a good announcer makes all the difference. Lawrence Baker and Charlie Moran are two of my favorites.
Notice that no two dancers dance the same way. In a competition, they want to appeal to the judges. Big prize money is the goal.
If you listen closely you may hear the announcer say that an upcoming dance is “All Tribal,” or “All Nation.” Guess what. That includes you.
If you wish and you follow protocol, you can join the clockwise move around the dance floor. Once I did it when I was adopted into three clans of the Mandan tribe. In that case, because of the nature of the moment, purification and smudging were required before entering the dance area. Other times when I’ve been included in dance, I didn’t have to go through purification. You probably will not need to go through the purification.
If you are not too obtrusive or obnoxious, cameras are welcome. And if you don’t make a nuisance of yourself, you can slide down to a lower level to get closer camera action — but of course you can’t go out into the dance area.
It’s okay to ask questions. The best questions follow a compliment on a dancer’s regalia.
They are not JC Penny or even Macy’s costumes. Dancers put a lot of loving attention into the details. Each piece of the regalia is handmade and can take months of fine bead work to complete. Some are handed down from older generations.
They are quite colorful as you can see in this video of the couple’s dance:
MHA Nation — the real thing
I like the MHA Nation powwows such as the Mandaree Powwow. They are authentic. Nor are they a show to attract tourists, or to please the local chamber of commerce. They are what they are supposed to be — celebrations of a long rich tradition.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are white people allowed at a powwow?
Yes. There are no restrictions. It’s a celebration like any other community celebration.
Where does the powwow regalia come from?
They are handmade and sometimes are handed down from previous generations.
Where are the powwow dates listed?
Usually on the tribal website or Facebook page. You can also find some on the Beautiful Badlands Things to Do page.