Photo by Robert Snache | Image source: spirithands.smugmug.com. All Rights Reserved.
Powwow is a way of life for some families. Here we get a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the colourful, chaotic and culture-infused lives of three families on the powwow trail.
STORY BY TARA GATEWOOD (ISLETA PUEBLO/DINÉ)
Maybe you’ve seen Powwow Highway, the 1989 film featuring Gary Farmer (Cayuga).
Or maybe you’ve heard people talking about hitting “the powwow trail” the same way others might talk about an exciting vacation. Or a business trip.
But unless you’ve traveled it yourself, life on the powwow trail can be too complex to describe as simply traveling to and dancing at one powwow after another (after another), especially when you consider the time commitment, distance, costs and other logistics involved.
In talking with powwow families about life on the trail, however, one thing easily stands out: Family and cultural preservation are at the heart of powwow life.
March and April mark the unofficial start of powwow season, and many families make their way to Albuquerque in late April for the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow. To celebrate the season, we spoke to three families preparing to embark on powwow journeys who are willing to share behind-the-scenes glimpses into their lives on the powwow trail.
There’s a lot to consider before hitting the trail. For the Speidel family in Saskatchewan, Canada, there are passports to pack, gas and travel money to save, a route to plan, lodging to reserve, admission fees to remember and, of course, regalia to repair (or make) and bring. All this and more can take months of preparation.
“These days when you come out at Gathering you know you’re walking onto a world stage and have lots of eyes on you, including PowWows.com broadcasting around the world, and you want to look sharp,” says Donald “Buffalo Boy” Speidel (Hunkpapa Lakota). “And that’s kind of heightened the inclination to have new threads.”
Over the years he’s been to more than a dozen Gatherings, and Speidel plans to return this year with one of his four daughters and perform with the Poundmaker Singers. Speidel says drum groups also have to prepare and create hot new tunes people will enjoy. Sometimes, he says, during the few powwows leading up to Gathering, drum groups might be cautious regarding the songs they sing, “… because they don’t want to air them out until showtime at Gathering.”
The Washington-based McCloud family uses what they call the “down season” (November to January) to plan their next powwow year. Russell McCloud (Puyallup/Yakama/Walla Walla), his wife Thea McCloud (Dakota), and their four children powwow together and work together to map out their destinations and prepare regalia.
Russell McCloud is his family’s sole man. “I got six people; everyone wears mocs and the leather always wears out on the bottom. Those always got to be replaced,” he says. “You always have to keep reinventing yourself every year to keep up with the times and trends, so we are constantly fixing our outfits.”
In the 1990s, that meant including neon colors in outfits, or adding different ribbon styles to jingle dresses, or incorporating new beadwork.
For many, spring powwows like Denver March and Gathering act as a deadline to ready the new gear. “A lot of people have brand-new beadwork just for Gathering,” says Thea McCloud. “We did that for my son two years ago when my son was turning 18 and getting ready to [compete] in a men’s category. I got it done that day the Gathering started.”
Then there are the regalia repairs. Thea McCloud says there’s always something falling off or tearing. She recalls a jingle dress that came together just in time.
“I was sewing in my camper, trying to get it done. It was about 100 degrees out,” she says. She sewed with fury and put the dress on just as her category was called to dance. “… I went out with it on and danced,” she says. “I took first place that year.”
Before entering the powwow arena, however, Thea McCloud stresses the importance of being physically in shape.
“You have to have a lot of stamina to be able to dance [powwow] song after song,” she says. “January and February is when we really start getting into it. You have to train to get back into it, especially when you are adding to your age. If we want to be successful, we have to train.”
She doesn’t mean just physically, however. The McCloud kids have to keep their grades up if they want to powwow. School always comes first, Russell McCloud says.
On the Road Again
A straight drive from where the Speidel family lives in Canada to the Gathering in Albuquerque is 24 hours. But with his family of six needing to make stops and take in a sit-down meal or two, the trip can last around 31 hours.
“You always look forward to the powwow but sometimes dread the road trip because it’s kind of long,” Speidel says, adding as an aside that it can be nice traveling with a big family that includes of-age teens to help take a shift driving Bessie, the family’s four-wheeled war pony. “But at the same time, when you get there, you’re just happy to see everybody and all that goes away. It’s like a reunion.”
Speidel attributes successful road trips to routine: Pack the car the night before heading out, stock up on essential snacks and drinks, plan stops—who doesn’t have a favorite roadside rest stop?—and make a musical playlist the whole family can enjoy.
And of course, “When you’re getting tired, everybody knows right way you pull out the bag of seeds and start chewing,” Speidel says.
Speidel, who fancy-danced in his younger days, went to his first Gathering in the late 1980s with a group of friends. “I remember my mom giving me a little money to help with paying for gas and paying my admission to get in,” he recalls, jokingly adding, “I guess if I wanted to eat, I had to win [the powwow dance contest].”
The McClouds have a few travel options for their powwow journeys: There’s the Russ Bus, which they named both their conversion van and their RV, a minivan and a utility trailer. They’ll fly to Gathering this year, however.
Powwow travels have definitely changed over the years. “How we used to travel a long time ago, if you wanted to go you jammed as many people as you can in a little car and hopefully you get there,” Russell McCloud says.
And get there on time.
Even with careful planning, not every trail is smooth, and being late to powwow can lead to heartbreak. Thea McCloud dances northern traditional and jingle dress, and she remembers times she barely made it to Grand Entry after a long drive. Some powwows disqualify contest dancers for missing Grand Entry, she explains.
Stepping into the arena and dancing in Grand Entry—the official start of every powwow—is its own reward.
“You get to give up all the worries you had throughout the week—bills, work, all the stresses that you fall upon. You get to see your friends and family and hear the drum,” and that is priceless, says Russell McCloud, who dances northern traditional style.
Speidel agrees. “We get to see family and be proud Indigenous for those days and feel good about it. It’s what I believe our people need.”
For some participants, powwow is all about competition, prize money and who’s the best, which Thea McCloud says takes away from its true meaning and foundations.
“It can be tough sometimes. You go to big powwows and all the top dancers are there. You have to try really hard and dance hard and make sure your dancing is good and that you’re stepping in time,” Thea McCloud says. “It can get stressful, but the fun part outweighs it.”
In powwow, she says, “Competition is secondary. Having fun and seeing people is first.”
Speidel agrees and adds that stepping into the arena means knowing your heritage.
“We always try to make sure our girls are grounded to not just dance for competition factors or just to win money … ,” Speidel says. “It’s also about knowing you are dancing on behalf of your family and this legacy that we all get a chance to participate in.”
Whatever his family contributes to a powwow, be it dancing or singing, it’s important to Speidel that they remember powwow arenas are places of celebration, happiness and pride.
“We survived. We made it through efforts of assimilation and termination,” Speidel explains. “I share with my kids that these [powwows] were outlawed at one time and that we’re all living testimonies of the resiliency we have as Indian people.”
With this in mind, Speidel has made sure to teach his daughters the why behind powwow, things like how important the sacred feathers, plumes and moccasins are, among other cultural values. “These are all things that someone in our lineage, our tribe, sacrificed or put their life on the line for so we could enjoy these things.”
For dancers like Marianne Addison (Salish/Kootenai/Northern Arapaho) of Montana, the arena is a special place unknowable to anyone who hasn’t danced.
“It’s an energy that you can’t find doing anything else, anywhere else,” says Addison, who travels the nation powwow-ing with her parents and 7-year-old twin boys. She says dancers and singers create powerful, healing energy for others. “There are things on the rez that can get you down or drain you.”
There are times she needs powwow. “You can regain your strength with it. You look forward with it. You can almost dance your problems away. It’s like a release.”
All in the (Powwow) Family
There’s family. And then there’s family. The powwow family. The people you know and see at different powwows, says Russell McCloud, whether you’re related or not. In this way, going to powwow is like going home.
“Some people have sports; we have powwow,” says Russell McCloud.
Addison knows what he’s talking about. Her twin boys are constantly being coached and mentored by others to drum, sing and dance powwow.
“Whenever they sing, there are people there encouraging them. The kids are what the powwows are really about,” she says. “[We adults are] really dancing to show [children] how to dance so that they can pass it on to their kids.”
Thea McCloud says powwow keeps her family together.
“It’s healing for us. Being in your outfit and being in that dance arena is a total spiritual feeling, and you feel so happy,” Thea McCloud says. “Without it, I don’t know what we’d do.”
Even being on the road—on the powwow trail—can be powerful. Addison says it’s when her boys start singing powwow songs with all their heart and making their drumsticks swing to the beat that she knows she’s on the right path.
“I wanted to give this to my kids like my family gave it to me. And it can be something they can always go back to, at any time in their life.”
This article has been written by Tara Gatewood and republished with permission from Native People’s Magazine.