CHASING THE POW WOW – A trip Into Indian Country

Words / Photography – Joanne Olivier ©

Driving into ‘Indian / Cowboy’ Country. The landscape changes from lush pine trees and waterfalls to open skies and endless roads and white clouds that crack under shards of the sun. We are en route Arlee Montana, to attend the 117th Arlee Pow Wow on the Flathead Indian Reservation. It’s a time of celebration, a tribal gathering, a part of the cycle of life, leaving faith and trust in the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka) to guide the way.

I’ve travelled thousands of kilometers to be here. Elders and dancers from all over the US and Canada travel to compete in a traditional dancing competition, complete with war bonnets, eagle staffs and the most colourful array of outfits I have seen ever, anywhere…ever.

Day 1: Arlee Pow Wow.
As we enter the grounds there’s a police presence and a sign reading “Strictly No Alcohol on the Pow Wow Grounds”. Alcohol has become a baton that has bruised the Native American culture and I can only respect the sentiment. The Pow Wow is about celebration of a culture that has almost been wiped completely from the modern US landscape, relocated to barren areas with tin houses and broken down cars, where poverty, violence, suicide and alcoholism fuel a deep sadness. I was told to expect to be saddened by this all. Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the most poverty stricken areas in the US. I am saddened by what has happened, I am…but today I don’t see anything to be sad about. It’s a spirit that cannot be fanned out, a fire that still rages in the swirling feather fires that flash in front of me on the dance floor.

“I’m growing, too. My blisters heal, my muscles stretch, expand. My tribe dances behind me. At first they are no bigger than children. Then they begin to grow, larger than me, larger than the trees around us. The buffalo come to join us and their hooves shake the earth, knock all the white people from their beds, send their plates crashing to the floor.
We dance in circles growing larger and larger until we are standing on the shore, watching all the ships returning to Europe. All the white hands are waving good-bye and we continue to dance, dance until the ships fall off the horizon, dance until we are so tall and strong that the sun is nearly jealous. We dance that way.”
― Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

MY connection to the Native American’s runs deep. I was born in a tiny ward in a tiny city on a tiny speck of the earth world somewhere in Africa, Circa 1975, approximately 135 years after Crazy Horse was born. I was born white, to a dad with specks of French in him and a mom with traces of Swede in her blood. I don’t truly know the distant distances and countries where I come from, but I do feel connected to something else that wasn’t necessarily on my birth certificate. I don’t speak about it much, unless I have had too many wines or a barrel of whiskey, because it’s become somewhat clichéd these days. I’m not one of those new agesy idiots who profess to have shamanic powers and I am not convinced Crazy Horse really was one of my forefathers, but having said that, I connect to the Native American culture more than I do the one I was born into. I do believe in shamanic powers and visions and deep connections to mother earth. I just don’t believe in it being used in the wrong context and for commercial gain.

Wakantanka ‘the Great spirit’ made more sense to me than some man with a beard in a church made of bricks. And so my love affair with the Native American Indian began.

Day 1: Pow Wow Arlee. Continued.
As we drive up to the entrance of the main dance tent I feel heady, anxious, panic attacky. This is one of the most surreal moments of my life. I grab my camera, unsure if I should be taking photos and walk towards the entrance. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time. An elder sits in his tent and prepares to put on his headdress. Eagle feathers hang from aged Ford’s and Teepees sway in the distance. At 2pm the Snake Dance ‘Snininpmncutn’ & Honoring Veterans is set to take place. Whilst my Pow Wow friends grab Navajo Indian tacos, Fry bread and Corn Dogs I take my spot at the side of the tent. Scattered around the area are Drum Circles. The singing never stops. It’s primal Indian wailing and beats that tomahawk their way into your heart. This is unnerving to the point that I am not focusing on getting the best angles or the most creative shots, I’m shooting left and right and centre and sick to the stomach that I don’t capture it all. As the elders dance I notice how far away their eyes look; entranced. Some of these guys look older than 90, pounding the floor in hot feathers and heavy headdresses. It’s one of the hottest days of the USA heat wave. I’m battling to breathe and I’m wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

Over 2 days we watched the dances. Every age group has a turn, cheeky 3 year old’s dressed in awkward bell moccasins and outfits their moms have dressed them in stumbling across the grounds. Teenage Indian boys thumping the floor like warriors preparing for the big hunt.

“There is something we don’t like, though. It’s when people call us Indians and then start calling sports teams and other things Indians. If we’re going to have a false name, at least let us have it and then leave it alone. Don’t start putting it on beer bottles and ice cream cartons and making it into something that embarrasses us and makes us look like fools. And don’t tell us it’s supposed to be some honor to us. We’ll decide what honors us and what doesn’t.”
― Kent Nerburn, Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder

On Day 2 I realized that it’s OK to take photos. On day 2 I relaxed and breathed in the singing, the area, the madness of the fact that I was in this spot at this time. Day 2 I got over the fact that I thought I was unwanted. It saddened me afterwards when we visited a local pub and the drunken American ladies at the bar didn’t even know the Pow Wow was happening, ten minutes downtown from where they live. I travelled thousands of Kilometers to come here and I will travel thousands more to find the next one. I won’t be a wannabee Indian pretending to understand the true reality of Indian life, but rather a traveler with a deep respect for a culture that represents everything right about what is wrong with the world today.