Saturday, May 02, 2009

About powwows


Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

In August 2007, I drove from Minnesota to the western end of South Dakota, to the Pine Ridge reservation, where the Ogallala Sioux live. The Ogallalas are one of the many Sioux groups in South Dakota. Like other large reservations in the US, Pine Ridge is remote. The 12-hour drive took me through the vast, gently swaying and mostly treeless prairie of Minnesota and South Dakota. There were no big cities, only small towns and hamlets.

I’d heard and read stories of poverty at Pine Ridge – high unemployment rates, housing problems, high incidence of diabetes. In fact, Shannon County, one of the main counties of the reservation, is the poorest in the United States. Poverty was indeed visible in some places, but the city of Pine Ridge was full of energy the day I arrived. Other reservations I’d been to had been strangely quiet and lethargic places. Apart from the odd community center, a gas station store or a school, there isn’t much to see; streets are generally empty. And the people are so shy, they hesitate even to look the visitor in the eye.

Pine Ridge was different. Every time I was lost, someone would approach and offer help. The Sioux are a gregarious people, even if on occasions they expected something in return – a couple of quarters for a cigarette or soda. And they had a sense of humor too. A seller of roasted corn asked me sit on his bench, and upon hearing where I was from, said:

“So you are the real Indian! Alright then, I am a Mexican from Tijuana. How’s that?”

(At the powwow in Pine Ridge - August 2007. Picture mine)

Pine Ridge was full of people that afternoon, and the crowds were there for a reason: the 22nd Ogallala Lakota Annual Powwow had just begun less than a mile away.

Simply put, powwows are Native American song and dance contests. They have emerged as modern equivalents of older ceremonies the tribes of the Great Plains used to have. They are festive but they are not like, say, rock concerts. Rather, powwows are generally somber and spiritual.

Drum groups – to whose intense beats and high-pitched chorus dancers bedecked with feathers perform – come from tribes all over the United States and Canada. The event is typically held in a fairground – as it was in Pine Ridge that day – with the drummers housed in tents encircling the central space, called the arbor. The arbor is where the dancers perform. On the outside periphery are shops selling all sorts of trinkets, souvenirs, crafts, t-shirts, and, importantly, high calorie fare – fry bread, funnel cakes, corn dogs, fries – that can add to your waistline in a day.

(One of the dancers. Picture mine.)

Incoming traffic to the powwow fairground in Pine Ridge had blocked the main road. And people were driving in from all directions, even the unpaved roads. Some arrived as part of a parade of horses. A cloud of dust had risen around the tents where cars were jostling for a parking spot. Almost everyone in the cars and at the powwow was Indian. Along the congested road, Indians were selling hot dogs and corn garnished with lime and chili; in a basketball court adjacent to the fairground, Indian kids, many of them wearing Tupac t-shirts (the rapper is enormously popular in the reservation), were playing an intramural basketball game as hip-hop blared from stereos; and at the powwow itself, Indian dancers – kids as well as adults, dressed in breeches, shawls with colorful designs woven onto them, their faces painted in many colors – danced in serious and self-absorbed fashion, careful of their foot movements; and there were portly Indian policemen, participating in powwow ceremonies, sporting black hats, their shirts displaying tribal seals.

Indians, in other words, were everywhere. That's not what the uniniated visitor would have expected to see in South Dakota.


1846 and Now

Back in the 1840s, this part of the state was dangerous frontier country for traveling whites precisely for that reason: Indians were everywhere. The great westward movement of American settlers – something that Thomas Jefferson set into motion with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 – was in full flow. The Ogallala Sioux were witnessing weary hordes of settlers from the east making their way to the Pacific Coast in slow-moving wagons. The Sioux, proud people that they were, looked upon these settlers initially with derision. They were no strangers to Europeans; they had met the French, vagrant adventurers and fur-trappers. But there had been nothing like this: large groups of people doggedly migrating in pursuit of a new life in the West.

Francis Parkman, author of the classic The Oregon Trail was one of few who saw firsthand the interaction of the Ogallalas with the whites. Parkman was an adventurer from Massachusetts; he was specifically interested in Indians – in a condescending sort of way as was the norm at the time – and that is why he had made the journey to the frontier. Later he would live with the Ogallalas for three weeks.

In the early part of his trip, in the summer of 1846, Parkman was traveling in the western end of Nebraska – not far from where Pine Ridge is today – when he saw a group of settlers cross paths with a large band of encamped Ogallalas. Parkman was an astute observer, and to him this meeting of the two groups was indicative of something broader; it was a precursor of what was to come. This is how Parkman describes it in The Oregon Trail:
“Not far from the chief stood a group of stately figures, their white buffalo robes thrown over their shoulders, gazing coldly upon us; and in the rear for several acres, the ground was covered with a temporary encampment. Warriors, women, and children swarmed like bees; hundreds of dogs of all sizes and colors ran restlessly about; and close at hand, the wide shallow stream was alive with boys and girls and young squaws, splashing, screaming and laughing in the water. At the same time a long train of emigrants with their heavy wagons was crossing the creek, and dragging on in slow procession by the encampment of the people who they and their descendents, in the space of a century, are to sweep from the face of the earth.” [italics mine]
More than one hundred and sixty years have passed since Parkman prophesied the extinction of the Indians. Has his claim, so confidently made in 1846, come true? In essence, yes: there are a mere 3-4 million people of Indian ancestry in the United States – that’s out of a population of nearly 310 million. Contrast that with this startling fact: Indians from India – people like me, very recent immigrants – number more than 2 million in the United States.

But if Parkman were to somehow lift himself from his grave and attend the powwow in Pine Ridge in 2007 (or any year for that matter), he would have nothing but surprise in store for him. Indeed, the crowds at the powwow that evening would have served as a pointed rejoinder to the claim that Indians were destined to vanish. Despite the demographic decline they have experienced for the last five centuries, American Indians are doing the best they can to take modernity in their stride and maintain some measure of cultural continuity.

And powwows, in my opinion, are one medium through which that reinvention is taking place. Because it features tribes from all over North America, a powwow is like a federation of Native Americans. It can seem like an alternate, subterranean world, distant from the American mainstream. But powwows are conducted frequently, in every part of North America. I myself have been to powwows in the Phoenix metro area; I am aware they are are held even in small towns in the eastern states and the Midwest. No matter where you live in the United States,
there will most likely be one within three hundred miles of you this weekend.

So attend one if you can and you will sense, even if only in a fleeting way, what an Indian America on a grander scale might have been like had history taken a different course.

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