Healing, sharing and competition at Fort Washakie powwow

By Christine Peterson
Fort Washakie, Wyoming (AP) July 2010

It was between him and the drums.

He didn’t think about the men around him, dancing, swaying, moving with chants. He didn’t think about what he would do later, or the precision of his movements.

He entered the arena, paused, waited for the drum group to begin. He ignored the chaos of a festival around him.

Singing started. It was slow and traditional, his favorite.

He started moving, arms waved up, down, his feet stomped and tapped back and forth to the beat. He swung his fan of eagle feathers. He bent down, swayed to the side, back up again.

Sometimes he dances for himself, lost in the therapeutic rhythm. Mostly, he dances for others.

Dancing is often a form of healing, one John Pingree knows intimately.

The Eastern Shoshone man lost his adult son in an Amtrak train accident on the East Coast. Dancing helped him through the death. Years later he still thinks of his son when he dances, using the history, spirituality and connections with drums to grieve.

Even though on June 26, at the Eastern Shoshone Indian Days Powwow, the dances are a competition, he’s not dancing for prizes. He’s dancing as a gift.

“When you’re out there, you’re telling a story. Dancing is a big honor for me, one we should share with others.”

Powwows started during gatherings hundreds of years ago. Tribes would dance before a hunt to ensure success and afterward as thanks. Over time, gatherings grew and dances were used for celebration and friendship, said George Abeyta, a “fancy feather” dancer and the vice chairman of the Eastern Shoshone entertainment committee.

More than 600 dancers came to Shoshone Indian Days the last weekend in June, many using the event, and the dancing, for healing.

Pingree’s father still dances at 92. He calls one of the northern traditional dances a “pretty boy” dance. The father told his son to imagine a boy riding a horse, noticing his shadow and admiring his form.

Each of the songs tells a story, and the dancers have their own. Some tell stories of hunts, others of battle.

The women’s jingle dance is one of healing.

As the story goes, a grandfather and leader lay near death. A person came to him in a dream and showed him the jingle dress – an outfit lined with hundreds of tiny, medal cones. She told him he should have the women in his family make the dress and his granddaughter should dance. When he awoke, he told his family about the dream. They made the dress, danced, and the man was healed.

“It’s a sacred thing,” Abeyta said.

“Dances are gifts given to us by the creator. They are a medicine.”

But the powwow is also recreational, social and a source of income for vendors and some dancers. It was the 51st Indian Days in Fort Washakie and the largest powwow in the state. More than 100 tribes were represented from North America.

Some of the dancers were the best in the country, and set an example for the Wind River reservation youth.

“Our youth can see that these dancers are dancing on our turf, putting it out there. Their talents are meant to be shared, and that brings strength to other people,” Abeyta said.

Carol Melting Tallow, a member of the Blood Tribe, is a fancy shawl dancer. Her bright colors – pinks, blues and oranges – are a contemporary version of traditional regalia. To be sure, regalia is not a costume. Costumes often invoke comedy or mockery; the outfits worn to these celebrations are steeped in custom and tradition.

Tiny beads sewn to fabric on her moccasins, leggings and dress weave the modern with her history. It represents not only who she is, but also her tribe.

She traveled from Standoff, Alberta, to participate. She has known about Shoshone Indian Days for many years, but this was her first time attending.

“The Shoshone are so proud of their beadwork,” she said.

Melting Tallow wanted her cloth, beadwork and designs to be worthy of the host tribe and powwow.

Dale Roberts played one of several drums, sitting in a circle and pounding the hide in perfect rhythm.

He’s part of the Stoney Park drum group from Morely, Alberta. He and his wife live in Oklahoma, but he performed with Stoney Park because it is part of his wife’s tribe.

He also brought his four children. His wife and the oldest three dance. His youngest, an 8-month-old, will when he’s old enough.

Attending powwows is more than a job. It’s a way for his children to see other American Indian cultures. Powwows open their eyes to a world beyond their tribe.

Khena Bullshields’ 9-year-old daughter, Lily, wiggles out of her beaded top, hot from sun and dancing. Khena danced as a child but stopped in college. The Blood Tribe member grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation, her mother worked in schools and her father for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

She started dancing again after college and now travels around the country on the weekends with her daughter.

Bullshields is a traditional dancer, wearing blues and pinks. She parted her braided hair carefully on the side, placed white feathers on the back of her head and wore large, gold earrings. A pink scarf was wrapped around her neck, and she held a fan of eagle feathers.

Her daughter, Lily, is a jingle dancer. Bullshields made both of their dresses, beading at night to relax.

While the dances are similar, all fitting into categories, each person has his or her own style that reflects region and tribe.

Dancing is a way to unify hundreds of tribes through movements, drums and singing. It’s a way to gather though competition, sharing and healing.

Their shirts, skirts, dresses and leggings are usually made by both the dancer and family members. Adorning them are gifts from friends or strangers.

Last year, as Pingree danced, a woman walked into the arena and gave him an intricately beaded heart with a red rose.

She said he reminded her of her late husband, and she wanted him to have something of hers. Now it’s strapped to the handle of his fan. He thinks of her when he sees it.

Most of his outfit is gifts – pieces family, friends or strangers have offered to him. It helps people to know a dancer carries something of theirs during songs.

“Things like that will never stop. No matter what the value.”

And Pingree will continue adding them to his regalia, joining the spear, feathered headdress and breastplate, reminding himself and others of the healing power of their dances.

The Eastern Shoshone Indian Days celebration was not only a powwow with dancing and competition, but also had food, crafts, a rodeo and Indian games. Fifty vendors arrived to sell and display their arts and crafts as well as sell everything from classic Indian tacos to hamburgers and lemonade.

Thousands of people flocked to the powwow, making it one of the largest turnouts in its 51-year history.

But, if you missed it this year, there are other powwows on the Wind River Reservation you can attend.