Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Blackfeet Culture Night

After a surprisingly tiring first day, the crew was ready for a night to wind down and relax. Of course, what we got was anything but. As we all sat chatting amongst ourselves we anxiously waited to meet a woman named Jolee, a traditional Blackfeet tribe member. She arrived late due to what she called "Indian Time," where everyone generally runs behind schedule. Although she appeared to be an average, modern woman, she was strikingly knowledgable about legends and beliefs of the Blackfeet people that have been passed down from her ancestors. She told us about certain signs from nature to pay particular attention to for times of preparation and signs that appeared as warnings. Some examples are, if a bird swoops down in front of your car, it means slow down. If you ever see horses galloping, it means a storm is coming; and if the wild berries in the forests are abundant during spring and summer, it means there will be a harsh winter. After her captivating lesson on beliefs, ceremonies, and traditions, she introduced us to several of her ten children, two of her many grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. These would be the participants of a traditional pow-wow, some as dancers and some as drummers. As her family set up, we all sat on the floor of the cafeteria, once again, chatting to ourselves. Suddenly, a heart-stopping boom resonated through the cafeteria prompting shocked shrieks from the girls and stunned silence from the men. The pow-wow had begun. The boom came from a hand made drum (frame built by Jolee's grandfather, with the hide stretched by one of her grandsons)  and  strung with the hide of elk and horse. About five members of Jolee's family, Jolee included, surrounded the drum and put down a bass line that could put all modern rap music to shame. Her great-grandchild of two, "danced" (walked) in traditional garb that Jolee herself had sewn just the night before. Two of her grandsons embodied two different kinds of steps, one being the "Chicken Dancer." One of her granddaughters danced in a dress sewn with hollow metal bell-like ornaments and was called the "jingle-dress dancer." Her other granddaughter danced with a shawl sewn with tons of vibrant tassels and moved her feet rapidly and with perfect precision to the beat of the durm. She was called "the fancy dancer." Jolee sat around the drum with two or three of her older grandsons and her brother. The oldest grandson was the leader to most of the songs and sang haunting but beautiful melodies. The others echoed his tune and the group encircling the pow-wow looked on with pure astonishment. Truly, the songs these people sang were chilling. After we watched a few dances, we were invited to dance with them. We did a freestyle dance, a trick dance for the girls then for the boys (where you had to stop dancing when the music stopped, or you were out of the game) then a guys-girls partner dance. After the vivacious dancing, everyone was hot, sweaty and more than ready for bed. Even though the majority was ready for a quiet night to sit on our air mattresses and stare at the walls, what we got was tiring, but incredibly worth it. I will never forget the night (a MONDAY nonetheless) that I got to participate in a traditional Blackfeet pow-wow.

- Maggie Young

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