Sunday, April 14, 2013

Pow wow rhythm

Take a piece of Indian fry bread, but don't add sugar. Instead, top it with beans, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and sour cream. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod!! The Indian taco is our go-to lunch for pow wows, and we're never disappointed. A pow wow is a feast for the senses--beautiful sites, a cacophony of sounds, and oh yes, deliciousness.

We got there early and were pleased to discover about a gazillion vendors hawking their wares--more even than last year. I love the wonders you find in a vendor tent, brimming with colorful goods, some hanging, some piled, some featured, some worn by the seller. I love the open-market, bazaar feel of pow wows, and the sounds, smells and colorful sights take me right back to the African markets I visited many years ago. There's just something about the energy of these places that can't be matched. And for some reason, American flea markets don't catch it. Maybe it's all the craptastic plastic at our flea markets that pales when compared to the hand-wrought, natural pieces in a pow wow market, but whatever the reason, we love these venues.

Bill and I have similar shopping styles. We choose our purchases based on the vibe we get from the seller, more so even than the goods themselves. We passed up hundreds of pieces of incredible jewelry, but purchased a small piece that wasn't all that pretty, simply because the seller was earnest and poured himself into it. The tooth-and-gem piece now protects my bike, and frankly, looks pretty badass.

So we made the loop, talking with each of the vendors. Obviously, we like the ones best who are selling their own art work. One gentleman had collected moose antlers and carved the most beautiful pieces into them. Even though they were way out of our price range, we couldn't help but stare at the gentle curves and organic shapes brought to life in the bone. Just gorgeous.

One vendor, who was also very cool and would have earned our business if I needed any more jewelry, crafted amazing bracelets from silver--each one different from anything I've seen before. Just gorgeous. 

Some tents are filled with flow-through purchases, mass produced and targeting a market of, well, I suppose little kids and people who just love to acquire stuff. But the cheap stuff, as long as it's not the dominant product, adds to the vibe as well. We found an herb shop--oh, the smells!!--bought a small, stone bear, a ring for Bill, some food. Soon enough after arriving, the sounds of the drums warming up in the main arena drifted through the venue. Then the strains of a single person singing with a guitar. That was so different and quiet compared to everything else, we stopped for a minute and stepped in to watch him warm up, the sounds of the market area fading behind us.

And then it was time to find a seat near the floor and await the grand entry. The emcee called to each drum for roll call, and they each responded with a short song, the hammers thrumming deeply on drums the size of a kitchen table, and I watched the smaller children off to my left, dressed in full regalia and too excited to contain themselves, dancing to the roll call. While I sat in my chair, tired still from yesterday's journey, I wondered at their energy. Even as a youngster, I didn't have that kind of vigor, and now, the thought of dancing for three days straight is unthinkable. I shall sit here, thankyouverymuch, and eat my taco.

And then it was time for the grand entry. The emcee announced the host drum, who got us started with a beautiful song, and in came the dancers, led by dignitaries of the host tribe and intertribal councils. Each time the pow wows start, goose bumps rise up on my skin, and a surge of emotion pours through me. This is a millenia-old tradition of travel, gathering, hosting, and honoring. The drums reach your soul and drag the life force of all the Americas to the surface, pouring through your limbs and out to the pow wow circle in front of you. The emcee identifies the honorees and then calls the dancing groups in, all of whom are moving to the rhythm of the drums, their magnificent head pieces, feathers, horsehair, skins, and cloth alive with the beat of their footsteps pounding out a history of pride, beauty and strength.

The dancers enter in a wide circle and create a tightening spiral as more and more pour into the venue. About 400 people finally gather, while the audience stands for prayer and song honoring the Creator, as well as the veterans and warriors of the various tribes present. The emcee remembers as well those empty chairs at area dinner tables, belonging to all those soldiers still in harm's way, whose families await their safe return.

Once the formal ritual is over, the dance competitions start. Catawba starts theirs with a number of intertribal dances, bringing large crowds of dancers out to the arena area, a festive, brightly colored event for the spectators to enjoy. New to me this year was the presence of iPads on the dance floor, recording the drums and in the case of one of the dancers, texting her mom. I love watching the adaptation of regal, beautiful, ancient ritual being brought into now, evolving in front of us, alive, current and relevant. Pow wows are not a harkening back to a glorious time; they are not historical reproductions of quaint or revisionist tribal traditions. They are the very present celebrations of a living culture that is filled with rich and honorable traditions but participating fully in modern America. The people of the pow wow have not set aside a weekend to "go be Indian." They are Americans in every way--not the least of which is military service--and enjoying a glorious festival this weekend.

There is a sound of a pow wow that is hard to describe. Yes, in the background are the ever-present drums, but also, the voices of the people, the speakers on the microphone, and all that. But beneath it all, cutting through the deep drums and sonorous voices--beneath it all is the bells. The women's dresses jingle with hundred of small bells, and the men's boots and women's shoes--all are decorated with bells. As you shop the vendors circling the main auditorium, you hear the sounds of bells as people walk the crowd. It all takes on a rhythm of the pow wow life itself, and soon enough it blends into a loud hum. 

But I remember as we left, we were seeking a smudge stick, and therefore made another round of the vendors. The grand entry and several dances had taken place, and now the vendor aisles were packed with people. I had seen the warriors in the dance arena, and they are a sight. Badass that I may be, these guys are hard-core, and as I heard the approach of the bells from my right, I looked up, and here came a warrior in full regalia. I know, I know, I KNOW he was a normal human being of normal height, but as he approached, I realized he had to be seven feet tall. I shrunk in my mind to a tiny girl, and he only got bigger as he got closer. The face paint, the skins, the feathers, all conspire to KICK ASS. In all my badass dreams, I can only hope to be a tenth as intimidating as that. A few minutes later we crossed paths with two more, and these were even taller than the last. Kick. Ass.

And so our pow wow day passed. We got back on our bikes, leaving the drum beat and remarkable sights behind us. We are pow wow bound again in a few weeks, this time to Lumberton, which is my favorite. And then it will be a year again, probably, before we return here. I can't wait!

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