By Claire Knox
April 1, 2018
BOZEMAN, Mont.—The land has a heartbeat. Put your ear to the ground and listen. The land has a heartbeat, and we forget to listen. But sometimes, something compels us to listen. Something simple and driving draws our hearts and minds to the constant beating heart of the land.
We Americans often forget our roots. Our country is young; the 240-plus years since the signing of our constitution pales in comparison to the history of many other nations in the world.
But the land our country exists on did not rise from the ocean on July 4th, 1776. It has existed for millions of years, and our ancestral European colonists were by no means its first settlers.
The American Indian peoples have been systematically robbed, cheated, killed, and pushed from their lands. Their culture has been attacked and their way of life forever changed. But once a year in Bozeman, Montana, they host an event that takes any person willing to attend and reminds them of the surviving American Indian culture and the heartbeat of the land.
The drums are the first things I notice as I enter the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the Montana State University Campus on March 30, 2018 to watch the 43rd Annual American Indian Council Powwow. I’m sure that the drums are the first things anyone can notice. Their steady and strong pulsing resonates through the building and can even be felt through the concrete steps outside. I entered the event just in time to witness the Grand Entry.
The drums started it all.
As their rhythm and the accompanying singing echoed through the massive wooden dome, dancers began to enter. I did not know of the various types of American Indian dance styles and their accompanying clothing types. The styles represented included Traditional, Fancy Shawl and Jingle, and every category of dance had participants from toddlers to adults.
People in all sizes and shapes danced into the room. Toddlers bounced along behind parents and teenagers proudly sported the regalia of their people. Some types of dress had hundreds of glinting golden bells which shook in rhythm with the drums and dancing, adding a shimmer to the air. Some highlighted large ornate shawls that flew through the air with every twist of the dancer’s form. Some championed ostentatious feathers meticulously arranged. All dancers were clothed in unapologetic color.
After the Grand Entry, dancers split into categories and the competitions began. A panel of tribal judges presided and one enthusiastic emcee provided commentary, humor and even tribal facts during the event.
The Junior Girls Fancy Shawl dance event caught my eye. The contestants climbed down from the stands, and girls of all sizes answered the call. Girls from three feet tall to five feet tall took the stage. The youngest contestant could not have been older than four years old. Her clothes were white and purple, with enough sparkle sewn in to make any four year old happy. She clutched one end of the shawl in each of her fists and waited for the drums.
The girls started dancing in unison. The older girls possessed slightly more coordination and sense of rhythm, but every dancer on the floor was full of spirit. The girl in the white and purple flung her arms in the air, her shawl spreading behind her like wings. Her dance started as somewhat of an excited bounce, but a careful study of the older girls reminded her of her rhythm and technique. A smile stuck to her face as she danced around the floor, swirling in and out of her competitors seemingly without a care or a thought towards the competition.
After watching a few dancing competitions, I wandered into the shopping area of the event. Many different people had tables and stalls set up, much like a farmers market or craft fair. People and stalls packed the area, making it feel like a street market.
Rabbit skins hung from above, entire fox skins—including the nose—watched me from eye level, and individual cougar claws sat below glass with an accompanying price tag of $30 per claw. Handcrafted jewelry covered tables, intricately beaded clothes, purses, and other accessories stuck out, and there was even a table of hand-carved wooden pipes.
While I browsed the aisles, a young boy beside me paid $3 for a rabbit’s foot “for luck” and a woman purchased a bundle of braided sage and a few pieces of sweetgrass for another few dollars.
Even while I wandered through the maze of the market, the drums did not stop. The constant pounding was spotted with sudden accents, but the underlying heartbeat drove on, carried from one drum circle to the next.
Throughout the whole event, the fieldhouse filled up with a palatable air of camaraderie and respect. Tribes from across the nation were represented, but no detectable ill will tainted the event. The competitors stepped onto the floor in their proud colors with no identifiers besides their competition number, and all danced together. They moved as one, spinning around each other, staying out of the others’ paths while confidently making their own.
This appearance of unification may only exist under the eyes of outsiders, but I could never hope nor wish to penetrate the unified front. The dancing had a joy that shone brighter than the competition. The powwow dancers danced with one spirit, and seemed powered by that ever-present drumbeat: the heartbeat of the land.