Native Americans of all ages and from several tribes dressed in brightly colored regalia, danced in a circle to the beat of the drums and song Friday evening as they celebrated the kickoff to the 45th annual Montana State University Billings powwow.
Dr. Jeff Sanders, a professor of Native American studies at the university, said the powwow integrates Native American heritage with higher education.
“This powwow is a blending of tradition and academics,” Sanders said. “It’s a way to honor our Native community within our university.”
The powwow began with the grand entry, consisting of an invocation and dancing. Various drum groups circled the main Alterowitz Gym floor, which featured a large open area for dancing.
Tiger Scalpcane, 40, of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, led his drum circle made up of his two young sons and several nephews. They call their group Wolf Voice, named after Scalpcane’s great-grandfather, Grover Wolf Voice.
“We sing loud and proud,” Scalpcane said. “We sing for our family, for our people and for healing.”
Scalpcane said drum circles are the unifying feature of powwows.
“It’s like the rock thrown into a pond, which sends circular ripples out,” he said.
Circles are a symbolic part of Native American culture, 26-year-old Northern Cheyenne drummer and singer Abelaza Horse said.
"Everything in our tribal communities happens in a circular way, so that is why powwows are structured that way, too,” Horse said
Each song tells a story, he said, which is passed on through the generations. Some tell stories of hunts, others of battle. The group creates new songs as well, incorporating contemporary songs with traditional ones.
Like song, dancing also tells a story, said Reno Charette, director of American Indian Outreach. A member of the Crow Tribe, Charette has been dancing most of her life.
“Dancing is a way to unify hundreds of tribes, and the young and elders, through movements, drums and singing,” Charette said. “It's a way to gather through storytelling, sharing and healing.”
While the dances are similar, all fitting into categories, each person has his or her own style that reflects the region and the tribe, said Kalen Sunroads, of the Arapaho tribe from the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming.
The shirts, skirts, dresses, head pieces and leggings are usually made by both the dancer and family members. Adorning them are gifts from friends or strangers.
Sunroads was dressed in bright oranges, yellows and reds with bright feathers. He has been dancing the prairie chicken dance since he could walk, he said. The colors represent the morning sunrise, the time of day when the chickens are known to dance.
The dance mimics the movements of an actual male prairie chicken when he's trying to attract a female. Dancers’ stand straight, chests and elbows out and shoulders back in a strutting posture.
“It’s a courtship dance, celebrating spring and the renewal of life,” Sunroads said.
The powwow’s head female dancer, Heather Takes Horse, a member of the Crow Tribe and a junior at MSUB, led the group dancers in traditional dance. She said it is one of the oldest forms of dance for Native women.
The dance lightly bounces in rhythm to the drum, and dancers gently step toe to heel, standing tall. The women are dressed in a fringed shawl folded over their arm, a purse and a feather fan.
“When I was asked to be the head woman dancer, I was very honored,” Takes Horse said. “This makes me want, even more now than before, to be a strong role model for my younger family members.”
MSUB chancellor Dr. Rolf Groseth said the event is something he looks forward to every year. He and his wife, Jaynee Drange Groseth, participated in the grand entry.
“We live in Indian Country, so it’s very important that we honor the customs of the Native people who live here,” Groseth said. “It’s an honor to be a part of this part of their heritage.”
The student-led powwow is free and continues Saturday with dancing, contests and vendors. Proceeds from merchandise sales help fund projects and scholarships through the American Indian Outreach and Diversity Center.