Travel: What do you wear to a pow-wow?

Watching Indian ceremonial dances used to be a hair-raising experience for palefaces - in more ways than one. Today, writes Lynne Patrick, you can see the spectacle and keep your scalp intact
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The day had been spent among Indians, learning with growing remorse how the white man trampled over their sacred places, and how respect for the spirit of the Earth has flown out of the window and led to environmental havoc.

That word, respect, kept coming up. A wise Indian sat beside me at dinner. They're not all wise, he told me with a twinkle; some know as little as the white man. But his tribe holds him in esteem, and has given him the title of Senator.

I asked him what a visiting Brit should wear to pay proper respect to that quintessential Indian occasion, the pow-wow. He looked puzzled.

"You wear what feels comfortable," he said. "I'll be goin' dressed just as I am now." In the classiest restaurant in town, he was in cotton slacks and T-shirt. Wise Indian that he was, he turned down a brandy with his coffee. He told me that he was having a hard time pulling out of alcoholism - along with half his race. This was a legacy of the white brand of wisdom; before the 18th century there was no booze in North America.

Next day at the pow-wow there were signs forbidding alcohol and that other manifestation of white wisdom: firearms. There was also a car park filled with row upon row of elderly, boneshaking station wagons, and thousands of brown-skinned people, mostly in jeans or shorts and skinny tops. I had decided on a cotton jump-suit, with sun block to cover the parts my straw sombrero failed to reach. Some things have changed; but not the Midwestern summers.

It was hot and dusty and noisy and colourful. It wasn't the picture evoked by a thousand Hollywood movies: circles of buffalo-hide teepees, straight- backed braves in feathers and war-paint, a peace pipe going the rounds of venerable elders. There were a dozen or so tumbledown food shacks; and some of the traders sold leather and beadwork, amulets of fragrant herbs and polished wood. But there was also the kind of entrepreneurial style you'd expect at any carnival; ice-cream carts, hot dog stands, children begging for balloons. Every wagon was doing a spanking trade in Coke; an iced six-pack is essential equipment in Wyoming in summer.

The chief of the host reserve put me straight on the relationship between picturesque history and modern reality. "Pow-wow used to be a ceremonial gathering. They travelled on horseback or on foot, and it would take days, weeks, months, to make the journey. They would feast, meet their friends and hold special ceremonies, such as the sun dance. Today pow-wow is a dance festival, with prize money for the best dancers in each category - grass dancers, jingle dancers, fancy dancers."

That was as far as the conversation could go; a highly efficient sound system began to fling out wailing music and a compelling drumbeat. I offered respectful thanks to the chief (his name was Melvin) and followed the vibes. It all seemed to be happening under a vast, barn-like canopy. I was one of a mere sprinkling of whites in 1,000 or so people perched on tiered, rickety seating around the stamped-earth arena.

The dancers stood out from the crowd like Sixties movie posters. Beads, bells and trailing fringes festooned their brilliantly coloured costumes. Some had huge, feathered bustles fanning out behind them; others sported face-paint in scarlet and black. One stood, muscles a-ripple and glistening with sweat, warrior brave written all over his polished bone breastplate. I swallowed my indigenous yellow streak and asked if I could take his picture. "Sure," he grinned. "Shall I take my glasses off?" Looking around, I spotted several more bespectacled warriors. Close by the drums were pounding.

Americans are famous for their informal friendliness. "My grandma sewed my costume," a resplendent teenager called Little Eagle told me. His grandma herself turned out to be a jingle dancer, with rows of silver bells stitched to her calf-length blue dress.

My new friend led the way back to the arena, gathering up two small competitors from a neighbouring camper van. "I'm Wayne," said the taller of the pair. "I'm Rising Sun," said his companion. When the white man was trying to impose his brand of civilisation on the Indian peoples, the authorities insisted on white-sounding names for their official records. Now one sign of the resurgence of Indian values is the ritual naming of children by tribal elders. Five-year-old White Crow was another friend I made.

Under the shade of a canopy, a dozen or so grass dancers were preparing to display their prowess. The music began, and they pounded the earth with their soft leather boots. The steps were precise, but full of passion. Afterwards they lined up to await judgement. I was glad it wasn't my decision. Technical skill aside, the prize money from this and other pow-wows is often all the income a dancer's family has. On the reservations, 80 per cent unemployment is a good figure.

The master of ceremonies announced a short recess before the Grand Entry. It sounded impressive; but everyone around me seemed more interested in lunch. I stood in line for buffalo stew and fry-bread, traditional Indian fare. Fry-bread turned out to be a large, savoury doughnut, densely chewy. I noticed that the commercial fried chicken wagon had the longest queue.

The seats around the arena were packed for the Grand Entry. Chiefs in tribal regalia followed dancers in full fig; smooth-skinned princesses paraded in white buckskin, their glossy, waist-length hair sparkling with beads. Melvin led his elders, a cascading headdress atop his Brooks Bros shirt. Then it was the turn of the musicians to take a bow. That was when I realised that the haunting music was not the product of hi- fi technology, as I had assumed, but live, made by singers clustered round drums the size of coffee tables. The air fizzed with the spirit of the Earth, that is so intrinsic to the existence of the native American people that they feel no need to invent a word for it.

I stayed until sundown. The pow-wow went on into the small hours, long after the mosquitoes had driven me to seek cover. I felt privileged to have been a part of it.

For details of pow-wows, write to Book Publishing, PO Box 99, Summertown 38483, US.