October is pow wow time here in the Black Hills. One of the largest annual pow wows in the country is staged right here in Rapid City the first week of October. Hold that thought. First some background:
I moved to Indian Country from New York over 40 years ago to get married. It was the early seventies and it was a bit of a culture shock. I was teased unmercifully for wearing mini-skirts (which hadn’t quite made the scene here yet), and the omnipresent country music, western wear and cowboy boots took some getting used to.
The marriage produced a rather unorthodox family: I’m Jewish, my ex is Sioux – the kids are Siouxish! This cross-cultural, mixed racial family was something of a laboratory for life lessons not available to everyone – and we took full advantage of it. Growing up, the kids (two boys and a girl) played Cowboys & Colored People. As they grew older they thought it was hilarious to introduce me (with my pale skin and red hair) to their unsuspecting classmates just for the shock value.
Because we lived in a white neighborhood and many of our friends were white, I made sure the kids were exposed to their native heritage as well. They spent weeks at a time on the nearest reservation (where my mother conveniently worked), and participated in local Native American activities such as dance club. (For a white chick, I’ve spent a lot of time at pow wows.)
But it wasn’t all fun and games. When I first moved here there were signs in the windows of western South Dakota restaurants and shops warning, “No dogs or Indians Allowed”. The newspaper didn’t print obituaries, births or wedding announcements for Native Americans. The only Native American cops were on reservations, even though 10% of Rapid City’s population is Indian.
We’ve come a long way since then, but – like all race relations in this country – there is still work to be done.
So that brings us back to the pow wow. The Black Hills Pow Wow is now 25 years old, and an established part of the annual Pow Wow circuit which stretches the length and breadth of the continent offering substantial prize money. It is also a major economic boon for the Black Hills and its Native American contestants – a topic for another time, I’m afraid – along with pow wow etiquette, how the individual dances originated, the grand entry, and dance judging.
For the people of the Black Hills, the pow wow has provided an opportunity for the entire community to come together for what started as a family get-together on the plains. I am proud to say that non-Indians have been welcomed by Natives, and have embraced the spirit of the event as a chance to expand their understanding of a rich culture which preceded Euro-American occupancy of this area by thousands of years. We are all better for it.
It’s time to Pow Wow!!
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.