SOU Powwow: Song, dance, community

Drums shook the ground, and tribal dancers charged onto the arena amid flag-carrying warriors. High-pitched voices cried out in song, and the powwow was on.

Southern Oregon University hosted its 17th Annual Spring Powwow, open to anyone who wished to stop by.

Tiny Tots five and under in mini-regalia hammed it up. Apache dancers shared their Crown Dance, a dance usually kept out of the public eye.

Frank Summers, an SOU graduaet and member of the Klamath tribe spoke of the importance of having powwow on campus.

"We as native people want to share what we have, and have always done so historically with non-native peoples, especially here in an institution of higher learning" Summers said.

Tribal outfits are made with modern fabrics, and amid feathers and buckskin are numbers for easy ID during contests. Titles like 'Sobriety Queen' are bestowed, and traditional songs are now sung into microphones.

Yet tradition remains, invisible to spectators who may not know the stories behind what they see. Take eagle feathers, for instance. A non-native may suppose they are mere decoration.

"My eagle feathers were given to me for a reason In the old days it might have been for hunting. Today it might be for doing well in school." said dancer Gary John, who had stayed up all night finishing his regalia.

"We honor our old ones — Crazy Horse and Geronimo and Red Cloud, all those chiefs, because without them there wouldn't be songs, there wouldn't be dancers; there wouldn't be drummers or singers," said Plummie Wright, who is a firefighter in one world, and a member of the Grammy-nominated Black Lodge Singers in another.

An intertribal dance was held in honor of the veterans, giving everyone the chance to shake their hands in thanks.

This kind of respect was woven into powwow etiquette — no traipsing about the arena, as it is sacred space, blessed before the event. No touching other people's outfits, which may incorporate sacred heirlooms.

No alcohol or drugs are allowed at any powwow.

"We are known as a sobriety drum. If you come to sing with us you are trying to walk a good life and live in a good way," said Felicia McNair of invited drum group Wocus Bay.

"A lot of us believe alcohol and drugs are what killed our people. People ask me why do you powwow and I say that's my party. I go there to have fun just like you go to the club, but I stay sober," said Wright.

Elders had prime seats, and received the kind of attention VIPs generate elsewhere.

"I was taught to go up and shake their hands. Ask 'Is there anything you need?' Bring them water. Bring them food," Wright said. "It's only a couple of bucks for a piece of frybread. They are the ones that taught us so we always take care of them. And we dance for those who cannot dance, like those in wheelchairs."

Family is honored as well. Cheryl Stinnett, a Kiowa and member of Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, puts people first.

"It's a big family here." she said. "I do enjoy competing — I compete nationally — but the part I enjoy more are the relationships that you build."

Wright summed it up.

"After years and years of suffering, powwow is a celebration that we are still here."

Share This Story