story and photos by: larry kline
page design by bobbie morse
FORT BELKNAP - "This music will make you feel good," singer Mike Talks Different said between performances at last week's 39th annual Milk River Indian Days.
"It's good for your inner soul," dancer Joe Brown Sr. said.
Last weekend's festivities were only the beginning of the local powwow season. Rocky Boy's Pow-Wow begins tonight, with grand entry at 7 p.m. The Hays Community Pow-Wow will be held Aug. 11-14 at the powwow grounds in Mission Canyon.
The main attractions of any powwow are the music and the dancing. Dancers ranging in age from 18 months to more than 80 years move in time to the beat of drums and the wailing voices of singers. The singers are telling stories from their own lives along with tales handed down from past generations.
The music is hard to resist - it sparks movement in both participants and spectators. It's alternately haunting and inspiring. The dancers' motions are precise and fluid, and the color and variety of their regalia provide a continuous visual feast to complement the auditory one of drums and diaphragms.
Talks Different, a Nakoda, is one of the original members of the Fort Belknap Singers. He's the elder of the group, passing along the knowledge he's gained since his grandfather, Ira Talks Different, began teaching him how to sing nearly 50 years ago.
The sound that leaves his mouth, like the voices of dozens of other singers who came to the powwow, is pushed out by abdominal muscles and altered by his tongue.
The songs come from somewhere else, though. They come from memory. They are born within the heart of the singer, echoing the heartbeats of dancers who crouch, spin, strut and leap around the sacred circle of dirt, the center of which holds the revered eagle staff.
For Talks Different, the songs he knows and teaches are a connection to his grandfather and the other elders who gave them to him over the course of his life.
"They had the patience to tell me the stories of these songs," he said. "My grandfather always told me - 'Make the people feel your music. Make them feel good.'"
The music and the movement tell stories that have survived decades of hardship, war, suffering, slaughter, happiness, peace, victory, defeat, abundance, poverty, assimilation and modernization, to be born again and again with each new generation. songs honor members of the tribe who have gone; elders who represent a wealth of knowledge about tradition, culture, language, history, legend and art; and young people who are entering new stages of their lives.
Brown, a White Clay rancher, parked his hay baler in order to participate in the powwow. He was honored Sunday afternoon with the sacred responsibility of carrying the eagle staff, a symbol as important to Native Americans as the American flag. The honor is reserved for an elder or warrior, and Brown is both. He served with the armed forces in the 1950s and was stationed in Korea and Germany. The 68-year-old took up dancing just three years ago, and credits a supportive family with helping him become involved in something he has wanted to do his entire life.
Talks Different began learning how to sing more than 45 years ago, at age 11. His first experience as part of a group was during his freshman year at a boarding school in South Dakota. The music has taken him to powwows all over Canada, along with events in the Dakotas, Washington state and Montana. He no longer travels, but other members of his group hit the road at different points in the season to share their sound.
"I've been doing this for many years," he said. "I hope to for many more. This is who I am. This is what I love to do."
Like anything else, singing requires practice.
"It's a desire to be better," Talks Different said. "It's a lot of self-satisfaction. God gave you a unique voice. You treasure that voice, because he can take it from you anytime he wants."
There are three basic forms of song. One is all vocals with no lyrics, another has spoken words throughout and a third is half one and half the other. The speed of the songs varies with the type of dance, and ranges from slow for traditional dances to very fast for fancy dancing, Talks Different said.
"It's all sound," Talks Different said. "We're keeping a melody for these dancers."
A leader begins each song and is soon joined by the other singers. The group sings through a portion of the song that is then repeated. Each repetition is called a push-up, and powwow songs are made up of at least four push-ups, Talks Different said.
The leader also sets the pace of the group by leading the drum beats. The drum is struck with a stick with cloth wrapped around each end. The Fort Belknap Singers' drum consists of two elk hides that have been scraped, dried, stretched and laced to a wooden base that Talks Different got through a trade.
Brown's son, Clint, has danced for as long as he can remember. The movements and clothing of the traditional style of dancing, which both Browns practice, is a bond that connects them to each other and those whose dance steps no longer fall in the dust.
"This is a way to show how proud we are to be Native American," Clint Brown said. "It's a way to display our love for our culture. There's nothing that makes us feel better than to dress as our ancestors did. We're playing out the stories of our ancestors as well."
Rocky Boy resident Pearl Whitford also has danced all of her life. She danced at Milk River Indian Days in the competition for women 60 and over. Like others, Whitford sees her dancing as a connection to the past.
"This is how our grandparents used to dress," she said. "I was brought up that way. I'm following in their footsteps."
Both their clothing and movements are often remnants of the dancers' tribal and family heritage or pieces of their own stories. Traditional dancers dress as their ancestors dressed daily and wear clothing and ornaments that represent their own names or the names of their extended families. In this regalia, they act out the stories that have been handed down for generations.
The traditional style is not the only one found within the circle. At Fort Belknap last weekend, female dancers also competed in fancy shawl and jingle dress style, while boys and men competed in grass and fancy feather dances. There will be about nine different categories of dances at this weekend's Rocky Boy's Pow-Wow.
Originally, the dances were a part of larger ceremonies. For example, warriors would return from hunts or battles and tell of their deeds by acting out the events, Fort Belknap resident Harris Rock said. Male dancers may tell of tracking enemies or game and the fight that followed.
"The warrior will imitate what he did in battle," Rock said.
The tale is reflected not only in their movement, but also in the items they wear, he explained.
The eagle feathers in a warrior's headdress, like the feathers of the eagle staff, each tell a different story. If the warrior fought an enemy standing up, the feather points upright. A feather leaning to the side represents a crouching position, while one pointing to the ground tells of an enemy lying prone or being dragged over the ground. If a feather is streaked with red, the warrior was wounded in the battle.
Women traditionally did not dance within the circle, Rock's sister, Ruth Long Knife, said. Females would dance in place around the perimeter of the circle because they did not go to war. In some dances, Long Knife said, the girl or woman raises the feathers she clutches to shade her eyes, as if she is watching for her warrior to return home.
Rock and Long Knife agreed that the arts of dancing and singing have both been partially lost. Rock said he can remember certain dances, which he described as acrobatic or gymnastic, that his father and other elders practiced that are now forgotten.
"It's being lost," he said.
In some cases, the younger generations have brought other elements into the powwow circle.
"They are changing things, they are making their own history," Rock said. "They're adopting things and calling it Indian."
Rock, a middle school teacher of Assiniboine language, culture and myths at Harlem Public Schools, said some of his students are interested in the culture that is a part of many adults' lives.
"I found that maybe half of my students are really interested," he said. "The rest want to live by the white culture."
Clint Brown said powwows and the related culture are on the rebound.
"It's coming back big time," he said. "There were times when the powwow was illegal on the reservation. If young people choose to dance and live this way, it's never going to go away."
Pearl Whitford's grandson, Dustin, is an example of the resiliency of American Indian culture. He is a prairie chicken dancer, a style that was nearly lost. Dustin Whitford danced at Fort Belknap last weekend, but his style was not listed as one of the competitions. It will be included at the Rocky Boy event.
The dance was kept alive by the Blackfeet in western Montana and the Cree in Canada, Dustin Whitford said. The song, which came about through a spiritual vision, brings good luck, health and prosperity, he said. Whitford's movements mimic the mating dance of the prairie chicken.
"It's a fun dance, and it's fun to watch," he said.
He said dancing has a spiritual side to it that he uses in his everyday life. He has been drug- and alcohol-free for all of his life.
He also recently became a parent.
"I now have another reason to dance - my son," he said.
While powwows are excellent examples of the beauty and complexity of American Indian culture, this isn't a trip to a museum. Visitors will enjoy themselves, Talks Different said.
"I hope they go home with a real happy spirit, and I hope they keep it that way," he said.