Dances in time with history
Teka Little Bear, a 15-year-old who lives on a Mohawk Indian reservation in Canada, looks very intimidating. A giant wig of crow feathers protrudes from his head. Not to mention the black-and-white stripes that race down his face and dominate the intricate beadwork of his outfit (which weighs 60 pounds). That's exactly the look he's after.
"I designed my dance outfit after the 'dog soldiers,' " he says, looking down at a reporter from his six-foot-tall stance - heightened when he puts on his feather headdress. Dog soldiers "had to look scary, because they protected my tribe from its enemies."
Teka dances competitively at native American powwows, or gatherings. On weekends from spring through fall, he and his mom and older sister, Katsi, load up their navy-blue minivan and head down the "powwow trail." That's what they call the 500 or so powwows held every year throughout North America. Teka and Katsi have snagged about $1,000 in prize money from the 10 powwows they've attended this year. It may sound like a lot, but that barely covers their travel expenses.
Teka is not in it for the money, though. He says he loves powwows because he gets to "meet up with my friends I've met from other tribes along the way ... and to learn more about my history and culture." He's been dancing and going to powwows for as long as he can remember.
Last month, Teka was in Mashantucket, Conn., at the Schemitzun (ska-MIT-sun) Powwow held by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. The powwow, one of the largest in North America, drew some 100,000 visitors from 500 tribes. It's a high honor to be crowned a champion here, says tribal spokesman Cedric Woods. The prize money, too, is "unmatched in Indian Country," he says.
Schemitzun means "feast of green corn and dance." Until about 100 years ago, it was a harvest celebration for the Mashantucket Pequots only. Tribe members danced for religious reasons or to preserve their history by acting it out. Like most native-American cultures, they did not have a written language at first. Parents would tell their children the history of the tribe, and those children would in turn tell their children.
Today, powwows are still social gatherings. But now they draw huge audiences from many tribes, as well as many non-Indians. Grassy outdoor locations have been replaced by domed stadiums and urban arenas. Music and drumming blares through loudspeakers. Competition is stiff.
But with these changes comes new meaning for the powwow. "The intertribal aspect allows American Indians to come together and proclaim, 'We are still here, our culture is still strong,' " says Beverly Baker. She helped establish the Trail of Tears Intertribal Powwow in Hopkinsville, Ky., 14 years ago. "We also look at it as an important educational tool for the general public," she says.
The most impressive part of a powwow is the grand entry, when the dancers enter the arena. Their costumes create a kaleidoscope of colors that whirls to the beat of a dozen drummers.
The first to enter are men carrying fluttering flags and wooden staffs topped with stuffed animal heads. Next come elders in long, flowing feather headdresses and young native-American girls in buckskin and beads. Finally, groups of men, women, and children spin, jump, and sway their way into a circle that becomes the arena for competitors.
Teka competes in traditional dance. It is the oldest of the dozen or so styles of dance performed today. Traditional dances date back to when war parties and hunters returned to "dance out" their exploits.
"I like to jump a lot when I dance," Teka says. He also crouches, as though he's sneaking up on an enemy. He often carries a painted war shield, a weapon, or a staff decorated with eagle feathers. Judges watch for coordinated bead and feather work, and arm and head movements that stay in time with the drum.
Barton Laney, a 15-year-old from Cherokee, N.C., prefers the fancy dance because he gets "to show off," he says. The dance is a big crowd-pleaser because of the fast footwork, spins, and occasional splits. It's freestyle dance.
Barton didn't like dancing at first. His parents made him start at age 6, he says. "But I grew to appreciate it as a way to connect with my heritage," he says, "especially now that I live in a big city and don't have a chance to hang out with many Indians."
Dancing is also a chance to challenge himself and to forget himself a little, too. "All that matters is the way I dance," he says.
Teka agrees. "I get a sense of freedom, knowing that I'm all alone despite the huge crowd, proving myself all on my own."
Men's Traditional: These evolved from ancient dances, where men acted out battle or hunt stories. Dancers dress to intimidate and carry weapons or shields. Teka Little Bear (see main story) competes in the teen category.
Men's Grass: Traditionally, grass dances were the first ones performed. Participants flattened the prairie grass for the dancers to follow. They wear yarn, ribbon, and beadwork that becomes a blur of color in motion. Judges look for gliding steps, spins, and waving movements that mimic grass in the wind.
Men's Fancy: A big crowd pleaser with its spins, fast footwork, and occasional splits. This style of dance may have originated in 19th-century Wild West shows, when dancers adapted (and livened up) war dances for entertainment value.
Women's Traditional: Perhaps the most graceful of the powwow dances. Buckskin fringes and shawls sway in time with the slow beat of the drum. Judges look for adroit footwork and poise.
Jingle Dress: Metal snuff-can lids are bent to make rows of jingles, which tinkle in tune with each step. Legend says an Ojibwa holy man received the design of the dress in a dream. Judges look for footwork and presentation.
Women's Fancy: Fast steps combine with colorful shawls that are flapped through the air like wings. Supposedly, women once danced in men's fancy regalia, but audiences disapproved and insisted that women have their own category. Judges look for intricate footwork, showmanship, and endurance.