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USU’s 37th annual Pow Wow celebrates Native cultures

April 3rd, 2010 Posted in Opinion

By Jess Allen
Photos by Dana Ivins

Nelson Field House filled with color, pageantry, and competitive dancing for the annual celebration of Native culture when USU’s Native American Student Council convened its 37th annual Pow Wow.

Two-hundred people or more—including vendors, onlookers in stadium seats and folding chairs, drum groups, and dancers—clustered around a circle in the middle of the arena.

USU’s annual Pow Wows are serious competitions, meaning that the dancers are judged on their regalia, movement and footwork, sportsmanship, and dance skill as they perform in the different competitions, said volunteer and NASC member Alyssa Gerber.

The dancers’ regalia—or traditional costume dress—are handmade, decorated with beads and eagle feathers, Gerber said. The different parts of the regalia hold specific meanings and symbolism, and sometimes include family heirlooms.

“The eagle feather is the most sacred,” Gerber said, as she collected entrance fees from Pow Wow audience members. “I think all the regalia is handmade.”

The Pow Wow was divided into three different sessions over two days. A Grand Entry Dance kicked off each session as the dancers entered the arena.

“The Grand Entry is the first dance they do and the first people that go are the royalty of all the different nations,” Gerber said.

Leading the dancers into the arena was a color guard of veterans and others carrying the American Flag, other flags, and the eagle staff, which serves as a national flag for Native Americans, according to an NASC handout.

“Grand Entry is where all the dancers come together and a prayer takes place,” said NASC President Cassie Largo. “Also [the Grand Entry is] where introductions of the head staff and the royalties are introduced.”

The Pow Wow includes competition in various age groups, dances, and categories. The men competed in Traditional Dance, the Grass Dance and the Fancy Dance; women competed in their own Traditional Dance, Jingle Dance or Fancy Dance.

The men’s Traditional Dance pays special respect to veterans. It is about a band of soldiers looking out on the prairie for their enemy, and is accompanied by the Sneak Up song, said dancer Perrylynn Tapoof.

For the women, the Traditional Dance is slower, and represents and honors women. Tapoof said her grandmother told her that during the Traditional Dance, the sashes sway gently and slowly like the wind.

The Grass Dance came about when the Native Americans hunted buffalo, said volunteer Antonio Arce. The men would flatten the grass to lead their prey in particular directions. In this way, he said, hunters could drive buffalo off a cliff.

Each song is unique and symbolizes the beating of a heart, Arce said.

“You have to pay very close attention to hear the differences in the songs,” Arce said as he pointed toward the circle as the dancers swayed in time to the singing and the beating of the drums.

The men’s Fancy Dance is much quicker and demanding. Tapoof described it as a warrior dance with elaborate and highly decorated regalia and headdresses.

During the women’s Fancy Shawl Dance, dancers stretch long shawls over their arms and backs as they jump and dance to the beat. For the women, Tapoof explained, the Fancy Shawl Dance represents a butterfly and a crow hopping, which mimics the way they move from flower to flower.

The final women’s dance was the Jingle Dance, in which the dancers’ costumes are decorated with 365 bells or other ornamental pieces.

“The number of bells is to represent the days of the year,” said Tapoof as she knelt behind a stadium in her regalia and explained the story of the dance.

The story went that an old man’s granddaughter got very sick one day. When nothing would make her better, the old man had a dream that told him that she needed to dance in a dress with jingles on it to restore her health, Tapoof said.

Because of the history of dance and what it symbolizes, the jingle dress is sometimes known as a healing dress, she said.

Examining the costumes, furs and hair decorations, Tapoof said the Pow Wow also is an opportunity to see what other competitors are wearing. “You can see some fashion trends,” she said, “like how bellbottoms go in and out of style.”

Tapoof, who represents the Northern Ute and Kaibabbaute tribes, said she has been participating in pow wows since she was a toddler. The events are held all over the West year-round, and some people make a living on the competitive pow wow circuit, Tapoof said.

Some are much larger than USU’s annual event, and can last for as long as a week.

The annual Pow Wow is a celebration of the coming spring and the beginning of new life, but for many participants it’s also a reunion with friends and family.

“It’s nice to come and see your friends and family you haven’t seen in a long time,” Tapoof said as she played with a beautifully round and beaded ornamental piece that was tied into her hair, an heirloom from her mother.


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