Youth powwow: It all begins here
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - The perennial flood of people had not yet arrived at the Rocky Boy powwow grounds on Thursday afternoon. Only a few tents were up and vendors were still setting up their booths in anticipation of the powwow this weekend. But in what has become an annual tradition here - the Rocky Boy Youth Pow-wow - about 300 children danced into the night, breaking in the circle for the older dancers they aspire to become.
The youth powwow was born about four years ago, said Elinor Nault-Wright, one of the organizers.
"We noticed a lot of young people getting into mischief on Wednesday and Thursday before the big powwow started," said Don Good Voice, the emcee of the youth powwow this year. "So we wanted to start a youth day." Good Voice was talking just minutes before Thursday's first grand entry, as a group of singers belted out a warmup song around a drum nearby.
The event got bigger every year until last year there were more than 300 registered dancers.
"We had so many dancers that we ran out of numbers to give to the dancers," he said.
The powwow welcomes all ages of youth, from the smallest "tiny tot" dancers to 19-year-olds. But instead of being a competition like Rocky Boy's Pow-Wow, the youth powwow is just an exhibition. Instead of prizes for the winners, all the dancers get a small monetary prize.
That makes for a more relaxed atmosphere, he said.
"That's the beauty of it. They become champions just by getting involved in the powwow."
Good Voice said the effort to give youth something to do worked.
"It really had a dramatic effect on the amount of vandalism and the youth mischief that was going on," he said.
"It started here. Now other reservations are doing the same thing," he said.
The event is important for more than the practical benefit of reducing mischief, Good Voice said. It's also important for introducing children to the powwow culture early, and keeping them involved.
"It gives them a chance to display what knowledge they have and what expertise they have in their dancing abilities," Good Voice said. "It also gives them a sense of accomplishment and belonging," and a sense of pride.
"A lot of them get their start here at youth powwow," he said. "... A lot of these kids are carrying on their family traditions too."
Nadine Morsette, 78, had three great-granddaughters dancing on Thursday, ages 2, 4 and 5. She sat in the shade of the arbor of aspen branches that curves around the powwow grounds, while the dried leaves rustled in the breeze and her great-granddaughters played around her. Morsette, who was born at Rocky Boy, said she remembers the tribe's original powwow grounds just over the grassy rise to the north, now long in disuse. She remembers back even before the competitive powwow, when the focus of the circle was the healing it could provide to people who watched the dancing.
"I'm glad I'm still alive to be able to teach these things to my young people," said Morsette, adding that the powwow is just a small part of the ceremonies in her tribe's culture.
Morsette said she knows there are many more distractions today, and that many younger people are not paying attention.
"We're introducing these girls. Maybe they'll get used to going to Indian things," she said.
Youth powwow organizer Jonna Parker said many of the kids who get started dancing are introduced to it by parents and grandparents who are dancers. As they get older, they often branch out to other activities as well, like singing at the powwow. They also may hit the powwow circuit, she said, traveling from state to state every weekend and seeing a lot of American history along the way.
"It's a positive activity - I don't want to say activity because it's a way of life for a lot of people."
But to get to that point, Parker said, kids eventually choose whether to continue.
"Between (ages) 6 and 10 they make the decision for themselves to keep dancing," she said.
Grass dancer Bryson Meyers, 18, standing in full regalia after the grand entry, said he has been dancing for about 10 years.
Meyers said that when he started, there weren't as many kids participating in powwows, but that he thinks there has been an increase over the last few years.
He estimated that the majority of students at Rocky Boy and Box Elder schools come out for the regular powwow, and that perhaps half of the students dance. The youth powwow plays a role in that, he said.
"The youth powwow is pretty much encouraging the younger generation to get into the circle," said Meyers, who said that in the last year he has spoken to three groups of students - as far away as Billings - to get them interested in dancing. "As soon as they get older, they'll know what's going on and they'll enjoy it that much more."
When kids protect their culture, Meyers said, their culture protects them too.
"Nowadays there's all kinds of bad-influenced kids," he said, referring to youths who fight, spray paint buildings and drink because there's not much to do on the reservation during the summer. "But when they're encouraged ... it'll change their lives. It'll start to mature them up."
Meyers said he's seen it happen.
"The more they danced, the more they matured up. It'll take them away from problems that they're having," he said.
Jason Meyers, 14, standing next to his older cousin Bryson, began dancing later than most. This year is the first year he is dancing in the powwow.
"I've always wanted to start," he said. "There's been kind of a little dream of mine to start dancing. I've always watched the dancers and I always wanted to feel the power of the dancing," he said.
But putting together an outfit can be expensive, and that was an obstacle for Jason Meyers, who said his family hasn't been able to afford one. He owns his own moccasins, headdress, head roach and belt for his grass dance outfit, but needed the shirt, pants and breechcloth.
Bryson Meyers said that's not uncommon, when a headdress alone can be $300 - and the rest of the outfit can be $300. The whole outfit can get as high as $900 or $1,000, he said. Many kids who can't afford that go to pawnshops, where an outfit can be picked up for about $100. Others have relatives who make the outfits for them.
Jason Meyers borrowed his from his cousin Bryson, so on Thursday he danced with the rest of them, an explosion of color wrapped in a flurry of white fringe.
Bryson Meyers knows from experience what his cousin and the other dancers at the youth powwow feel.
"(They) feel energy from the drums, energy around them, the music," he said. "It gives you a real good feeling and makes you want to dance. They feel that energy as soon as they enter the circle."