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A powwow is a celebration in which Native American cultures come together to honor their legacy through music, dance and art.

While origin stories vary, some believe the dances began as a gathering for medicine men and spiritual healers to restore health to the sick.

With practitioners beating a steady rhythm in a drum circle, their voices still echo throughout the celebration, carrying the message of the ancestral bloodline.

51st Annual MSUB Powwow

The 51st Annual Montana State University Billings Powwow is April 6-7, at Alterowitz Gymnasium, entry is free and open to the public.

“The word ‘powwow’ was a European term,” said event coordinator Walter Runsabove. “Native Americans had to go underground with ceremonial dances until the Freedom of Religion Act.”

Runsabove has been to hundreds of powwows in his life. He has heard and knows origin stories about powwow celebrations – and it all starts with Buffalo Bill Cody.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows were like a sideshow of the American West, and Native Americans made for authentic performers. The show traveled throughout America and Europe as many indigenous people performed traditional dances. Eventually, the term “powwow” was applied to their part of the show.

With the powerful beat of the ancestral drum symbolizing the heartbeat of Native American tribes, the phrase sustained and Native Americans across the U.S. and Canada turned it into a way to celebrate their culture.

“Without that drum – that heartbeat – there is no powwow,” said Runsabove. “We want everyone to be part of it – greet old friends and make new ones.”

Events kick off at 1 p.m., April 5, with the MSUB basketball tournament. Finalists will play again at 9 a.m., April 6.

Powwow grand entry begins at 6 p.m., April 5, with dance competitions featuring grass and fancy dancing, and drum competitions through April 6.

For more information, call Walter Runsabove at (406)-657-2011 or visit msubillings.edu/naac.

The 44th Annual American Indian Council Powwow at Montana State University

Held at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, The 44th Annual American Indian Council Powwow at Montana State University is one of the largest in the state. The powwow is March 29-30, entry is free and open to all.

The powwow begins at 6 p.m., March 29, with a grand entry of dancers and drummers from all over the region and surrounding states including drum group, The Boyz, from St. Paul, Minnesota, and head female and male dancers from Fort Belknap. Traditional vocalists and dancers will be juried by a guest panel of judges.

Vendors will be onsite with traditional fare, including bison sliders and stew served in a squash bowl, elk chili and frybread with wojape (traditional berry sauce); booths will also display and sell traditional artistry.

For more information call Lisa Perry at 406-994-4880 or visit montana.edu/aic.

North American Indian Days

Blackfeet traditions are honored from July 11-14, at the North American Indian Days in Browning. Festivities kick off July 11, with Youth Day – dedicated to the Blackfeet youth.

“There will be rides and activities. It’s our way of letting our youth know they are important,” said Stephanie A. Vielle, Director of Tourism, Parks, and Recreation of Blackfeet Nation.

The powwow typically involves 1,500 dancers, including men, women and children performing customary fancy dances in full, traditional regalia.

Along with the powwow, attendees can enjoy a parade on Saturday, rodeo, horse relay events, food vendors and authentic Native American artistry throughout the four-day celebration.

Entry is free and open to the public. For more information call Stephanie A. Vielle at (406)-338-7406.

Rocky Boy Powwow

Hosted by the Chippewa Cree Tribe, the 55th Annual Rocky Boy Powwow will be held Aug. 1-4, at the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation Celebration Grounds.

Events begin with Youth Day – a day devoted to the young people of the community.

“We really honor our youth. This day is just for them. We recognize the young dancers and they are initiated into the circle,” said Caryn Sangrey, powwow committee president.

The powwow is a way of life for many tribal members. It is a family affair – mothers and grandmothers prepare traditional regalia that take up to a year to create.

“They bead and sew all winter,” said Sangrey. “Each piece of regalia is made with love – the detail is amazing.”

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Dancers include some of the best in Montana and U.S. – some that travel from powwow to powwow with a strong fan following. With as many as 1,000 dancers ranging in age from 5 to 80, attendees will observe traditional dances like the “Jingle Dress” dance – a ceremonial healing dance.

“The dancers remain grounded. They work hard to share their work and show their ability,” said Sangrey.

Approximately 35 vendors will be onsite with traditional Indian tacos, fry bread and variety of street food, as well as craft booths of Native American artistry like paintings, woodwork, beading, star quilts and jewelry.

“We welcome visitors to taste the food, watch the dances, hear the drums and songs, see our home and our traditions – it’s all beautiful and we are proud to show visitors what we have to offer,” said Sangrey.

For more information, call Caryn Sangrey at (406)-395-5705.

Last Chance Powwow

The 21st Annual Last Chance Powwow is Sept. 27, 28 and 29, at the Lewis and Clark Fair Grounds Exhibition Hall in Helena.

Grand entry times are Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 6-10 p.m.; Saturday from noon to five and 6-10 p.m.; Sunday from noon to five.

“We have dancers from all Montana tribes, the U.S. and Canada,” said Cary Youpee, powwow committee member.

The powwow is alcohol-free, open to the public and entry is free.

“We fundraise all year so we don’t have to charge at the door – families with kids cannot afford to pay for everyone to get in and we want people to be able to experience the powwow,” said Youpee.

With as many as 15 different drum groups performing at different times, the celebration calls to the thunder and healing rains.

“The rains restore life. It’s about remembering Mother Earth and having gratitude,” said Youpee.

With 25-30 vendors selling artistry, crafts and traditional food, all proceeds go to the powwow.

“No one profits from it – it’s not about making money. We all volunteer our time and efforts to make it happen,” said Youpee. “The powwow is very lighthearted, there are so many colors of regalia with blends of fabrics and feathers, headdresses and moccasins – it’s a beautiful and fun celebration.”

For more information go to lastchancepowwow.com.

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Senior Editor for Special Sections

Senior Editor for Special Sections at The Billings Gazette.