Feel the Drum Beat
Feel the drum beat. Hear the singing. See the colors. Admire the detailed regalia, skilled footwork and precise movements. This is a powwow. See the Eastern Shoshone Powwow in June, Ethete Celebraton in July and the Northern Arapaho powwow in August. Weekly dance exhibitions are held in Lander and Riverton June-August. See the complete 2017 Powwow Schedule.
Feel the Experience
The drum beats reverberate through my chest. The chanting rises to a wail so haunting it’s impossible to not feel completely absorbed in the moment.
In Wind River Country the summer season also marks the beginning of powwow season. From May through September you can experience a true cultural event by attending a powwow on the Wind River Indian Reservation. It’s a chance to learn about other cultures, but it’s one of those educational experiences that is so entrancing you keep wanting to learn and see more.
Powwows date back to before the Europeans arrived in North America. The Plains Indians danced to honor tribal members, mark important events, or to seek protection for their people. Native Americans still dance for many of these reasons, but also to keep their cultures and traditions alive.
Powwows usually begin on Friday night with the grand entry where dancers enter the arena and elders bring in eagle feathers and flags. There are two grand entries on Saturday and one on Sunday.
The grand entry showcases the regalia dancers wear. There is great pageantry to powwows with exquisitely constructed regalia that is handmade and includes feathers, shells, bones, beadwork and sometimes family heirlooms. Everything on the regalia usually has significance to the dancer. Seeing the regalia- including the bustles and headdresses- up close, you can see the intricacies and craftsmanship that goes into each piece, a pattern that makes the colors flash and swirl when the dancer begins to move.
You can admire it, but don’t touch the regalia without asking first.
Admission to powwows is free. Once there you’ll find all kinds of vendors selling fry bread, Indian stew and Indian tacos, as well as jewelry and other items.
Powwows today can include games, food and plenty of socializing, but the dance remains the main event. There are traditional dances passed down through the generations, as well as modern dances created in the last 20 years. Some are competitive and dancers follow a powwow circuit dancing for prize money. Usually about 40 percent of the dancers are from Wind River Country, the rest come from across the country and Canada. But whether dancers are trying to earn money or performing for personal reasons, it’s hard to take your eyes off the dancing. The only thing that can distract is the music. If you close your eyes for a second the music will sweep you away. Drumming and singing accompanies all dancing and the drumbeat is considered sacred, representing the heartbeat of the tribe. Each thumping note carries songs to the Great Spirit, along with the prayers of the people. Like the dancers, the drum groups come from across North America. Different groups specialize in different styles of dancing and each type of dance has its own song.
Powwows are open to the public free of charge, but you must remember to be respectful. You can take photos, but if possible, introduce yourself and ask. You can sit in the bleachers, or bring your own lawn chairs- in fact you’ll need to bring your own chair if you attend the Ethete Celebration- but be mindful of where you sit. Blankets on bleachers mark spots for dancers and their family members and you’ll want to keep access to the arena clear so dancers can move in and out easily.
A powwow isn’t a spectacle; it’s a cultural event significant to participants. A powwow is an incredible way to truly experience the blending of the present and Wind River Country’s history.
If you can’t make any of the scheduled powwows, the Wind River Hotel and Casino hosts dancing exhibitions on Tuesday nights during the summer in its Northern Arapaho Experience room, and the Museum of the American West hosts outdoor exhibitions Wednesday nights in July and August. These exhibitions are a great way to learn about the dancers and dance styles and information on the regalia.
Remember that at each powwow you visit, things can and will be slightly different based on unique tribal customs. Be respectful of the uniqueness of each tribe.
- If taking pictures, remember common courtesy and ask permission from the dancer first or ask them after the dance is over. Feel free to introduce yourself. It is usually all right to take group photographs. 2. Take a lawn chair. Most Powwows will not have seating for the public or enough seating for everyone. 3. Arena benches are reserved for dancers and their families. Dancers will reserve a space on the bench by placing a blanket in that space before the powwow. Please do not sit on someone else’s blanket unless invited. Uncovered benches are considered unreserved. 4. Be aware that someone behind you may not be able to see over you. Make room, step aside, sit, or kneel if someone is behind you.
- Listen to the Master of Ceremonies. He will announce the types of dances they will be conducting. Dances are often separated by gender, and vary from traditional to contemporary dances.
- There are designated leaders who help conduct a Powwow, such as the Master of Ceremonies, Arena Director, Head Singer, Head Man Dancer and Head Woman Dancer. If at any time you are uncertain of procedure or etiquette, please check with the Master of Ceremonies, Arena Director, or Head Singer. They will be glad to help you with your questions.
- Show respect to the flag and honor songs by standing during “Special” songs. Spectators should stand quietly until the song is completed.
- Each dancers ensemble is unique to them and is called regalia. Please do not touch their regalia without asking first.
- The Flag Song, or Indian National Anthem, is sung when the American Flag is raised or lowered. Please stand and remove hats during the singing of this song. It is not a song for dancing.