Pulsing drums, the jingle of dresses and bells, the scents of fry bread and sweetgrass and an arresting array of brilliant-colored regalia all swept through the Exhibit Hall Saturday, as the grand entry opened Saturday’s events at the Last Chance Community Pow Wow.
Over 100 dancers from nine tribes, coming from five states including all over Montana, and also from Canada are taking part in the 14th Last Chance Community Pow Wow, said Cary Youpee, this year’s chairman.
Dancing continued into Saturday night and resumes at 1 p.m. today at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall.
While for some of us, a pow wow is a fascinating novelty, for others it’s a time for family, community and an important part of traditional life.
It’s a place where different tribes meet, share news and culture and, of course, dance.
“A lot of dance is passed down through parents,” said Youpee, who is Fort Peck Sioux.
This is definitely true for 18-year-old Genevieve Growing Thunder and her 13-year-old sister, Marita.
As Genevieve braided her sister’s hair in preparation for Saturday’s Grand Entry, she said, “Our whole family dances.” She started when she was still a toddler.
At this pow wow, both sisters and their mother and father will dance, and her brother and father will sing.
“My mom is a big contributor in how I dance and why I dance,” said Growing Thunder, who was performing Saturday evening in the jingle dress dance.
“It’s a prairie dance from the Ojibway people,” she said. “It’s a medicine dance.”
Growing Thunder dances, she said, “because it’s who I am — it’s my identity. It’s how I give back. I’m very blessed with my abilities to dance. I dance to glorify Jesus Christ.
“My mom showed us how to dance,” she said, including northern and southern variations of dances.
Shannon Ahhaitty-Whiteman, their mother, dressed in a burgundy velvet dress with intricate beaded moccasin boots, said, “I didn’t know any other way. My parents passed down the tradition. This is the way we lived.”
Her mother was Delaware and her father Kiowa-Comanche. He lived his early years in a tepee on the prairie with his grandparents until he was 10, when the government sent him away to boarding school.
“Dancing is a way of life,” said Ahhaitty-Whiteman. “My dad preserved what he had. Dancing is a way to honor him.”
She’s thankful that he preserved his language and culture and passed it on to her.
She wears a necklace her father made — bearing a red and yellow maple leaflike beaded design.
“The red tepee is Kiowa, the yellow is Comanche,” she said.
Her daughter Genevieve’s dress, in brilliant deep red and blue cotton, represents the heritage of Ahhaitty-Whiteman’s father — the Comanches and Kiowa camped together. “Both tribes wear the red and blue dress,” she said.
Blue is the color blood appears when seen through the skin, she explained, and red is its natural color. The cut of the dress is also traditional — with tabs on the dress hem where — if it had been sewn from buckskin — there would have been the legs of the deer hide.
Ahhaitty-Whiteman, an employee at Salish Kootenai College, is working on a Ph.D. in business and just completed her M.B. A. She also has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering.
She grew up in a traditional Indian home, which is the lifestyle she maintains.
“The food is dry corn soup, bannock bread and boiled meat and potatoes,” she said. “We practice the Native American Church.”
The whole family has been on the pow wow circuit most of the summer, said Growing Thunder. They’ve been to so many across the country, she’s lost count.
“I love the atmosphere,” she said. “I love being with my family. It brings my family closer.”
American Indian traditions are being kept alive at the Last Chance Community Pow Wow, said Youpee. “We probably have the most tiny tot dancers of any pow wow. That’s our theme — honor the children.”
Pow wows continue to grow, he added. “They are an energy center for tribes.”