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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing