A heartbeat and a blessing
by Mark M. Hancock / © The Beaumont Enterprise
American Indians from across the country gathered in their finest regalia at the Alabama-Coushatta reservation this weekend to dance, sing, drum and reunite. The 38th annual Alabama-Coushatta Tribe Pow Wow invited guests to reconnect to the proud heritage of this land and its people.
As with everything organic, the powwow starts with a heartbeat.
"The drum is like the heartbeat of our people," said Sonny Blackbear, head singer of the Bear Claw drum group from Dallas. "This drum is a blessing to our people. We treat it with respect when we sit around this drum."
The Bear Claw drum group is mostly composed of Kiowa and Comanche tribe members. Sonny Blackbear's father, Darrell Blackbear, is Kiowa/Apache and a member of the drum group, which was designated as the Host Southern Drum group.
"At most powwows nowadays in the southern part of the country, you start your powwow off with a gourd dance session," said Darrell Blackbear. "The gourd dance is holistic to the Kiowa people. We like to think it blesses the whole arena and the powwow. I like to think that's why we start off with the gourd dance. It's like a blessing."
The gourd dance is facilitated by Port Arthur business owner Mel Whitebird of the Southern Cheyenne tribe.
"The gourd dance is a warrior's dance," he said. "It started among the Plains tribes hundreds of years ago. It evolved into the 21st Century. The warriors we have today are veterans - they're our modern-day warriors. It's a very popular dance and it's branched out nationwide."
The spiritual dance is popular with all tribes because it honors the American Indian warrior.
"The warrior in a tribe is the highest honor that anyone can attain. So, we always honor our veterans during every powwow," Whitebird said.
The gourd dance is a slow dance. It's conducted by intertribal military veterans. During the dance, men shake custom rattles made of gourds or metal and filled with seeds or marbles.
After the gourd dance, all competitors prepare for the Grand Entry.
As dancers gather outside the arena, the tribe's eagle staff is brought forward. It serves as the flag for American Indians. Light gleams on the eagle talons as they stretch for the sky in the thick, green forest. The eagle's outstretched claw is attached to a 5-foot staff and is surrounded with elaborate beadwork representing the American flag. Below the claw on the tribe's staff are eagle feathers with the names of the tribe's fallen veterans.
Warriors also lead the Grand Entry.
"When the Grand Entry comes in, leading the Grand Entry will be the American colors. We believe it's still our country, and we'll fight for it. We serve in large numbers. We are very, very patriotic people," Whitebird said.
Harold Rogers is the arena director. He helps run the arena during the contest. He is the liaison for the master of ceremonies, dancers, drummers and the powwow committee. He said there are more than 500 tribes and each conducts powwows differently.
"There are many different kinds of powwows. There's contest powwows. There's social benefit powwows, where there's no dancing at all. There's the traditional powwow, where there's just specific dance styles," Rogers said.
There are many versions of how powwows began. However, they are now popular tribal events which facilitate family reunions, dance competitions and an informal dating service.
"A powwow, in general, is a celebration. Not only will you see contest dancing, you'll have singing from drum groups from throughout the United States and Canada as well as good intertribal dancing, where we ask all the dancers with many different dance styles just to come out. They have a good time. We'll have some social dancing, where we'll ask the general audience to participate," Rogers said.
Competitors get points for dancing during specific songs as well as during intertribal dances, where anyone can participate and regalia isn't required. There are four competitive dance styles for men and four for women. Each style is broken down into contest categories by age. After each dance, points are awarded to dancers and tracked by a scorekeeper.
Pat (Helm) Poland of Conroe, Texas is one of the competitive dancers. She is Cherokee/Comanche, and her mother is a descendant of Quanta Parker.
"I compete in the dance contest," she said. "I'm Southern Cloth. Because of my age, I'm Golden Age, which is anybody 55 and up."
Judges watch the dancers for timing and missteps. However, participation is the most important quality as dancers get points for participation in each included dance. Pow wow winners have acquired the most points throughout the weekend. With thousands of dollars riding on the final score, each point is literally valuable.
"If they call for an Indian Two-Step, which is the only time that a man and woman dance together, some tribes will count points [and] some tribes won't."
Officials announce which dances are for points.
"If it counts points, you better, as a woman, go grab somebody because it's a woman's choice. The woman has to get up and go get a man. If a man refuses, [the man must] pay [the woman] $5," Poland said.
She learned the steps by attending dances and having friends teach her the dances.
"A lot of these dancers here have been dancing since they were babies. I've seen them not even be able to walk and their mamas take them into the ring."
She said the tribe holds monthly benefit powwows from November until their large annual pow wow. Then, dancers follow the Red Road, the powwow circuit, north to cooler climates.
"It makes no sense to dance in Texas in July and August. Then, you'll have powwows up north."
Tribes north of Texas have their annual powwows through the summer and into the fall. Afterward, the local benefit powwows begin anew at the Alabama-Coushatta reservations.
At all powwows, all activity begins and ends with the drumbeat. The drum itself is made from a hollowed tree trunk. Hides are stretched over the top and bottom and tied with wet leather then dried. When a drum is constructed, it's made with sweat and prayers.
"The longer you sing with [the drum] and the more powwows you go to and the more dances you go to, the more medicine - blessings - come with the drum," said Sonny Blackbear. "This is a very old drum. We call it 'Grandpa.'"
He said the drum beat tempo mimics a heart beat. For slower songs, the beat is steady. For fancy war songs, the beat races like a warrior in battle.
"After sitting around this drum, we become brothers at this drum. We all become in synch with each other. Over the years, we become real tight with each other. Now, when we swing our stick, it sounds like one stick. When we sing with our voices, it sounds like one voice."
On the Web:
Pow Wow introduction
Twin Cities public television presentation about Pow Wows
National Championship Pow Wow
Austin Pow Wow
Flying Eagle Trading Post (home of the Bear Claw drum group)
The National Championship Pow Wow will be held Sept. 8 - 10, 2006 at Traders Village in Grand Prairie, Texas.
The Austin Pow Wow is held on the 1st Saturday of November at the Tony Burger Center in Austin.
Please also see the photo story "38th annual Alabama-Coushatta Tribe Pow Wow" by Mark M. Hancock.