Excerpt from Powwow

The Setting

It is springtime at last, and the highway stretches out before us without a curve as we speed along in our loaded van. The prairie on Chapman Bench, north of Cody, Wyoming, is gently greening, though the dividing line between winter and springtime is not as dramatic and colorful as usual because of the warm, dry winter. A few rainstorms accompanied the arrival of spring, and the prairie is lovely as it comes alive once again. With the beauty of spring comes the beauty of tradition. After many months of anticipation we are all packed, loaded with our dance outfits and folding chairs, and are heading north on Highway 120 to the Red Bottom Celebration to powwow.

The tensions of the week are easing as we hum along, and the kids are quieting down in the back seats, reading and finding other things to occupy the many hours ahead. The hustle and the hassle of packing are all but forgotten as we each, in our own way, look forward to seeing friends and relatives and to experiencing all the other things that happen in the springtime in our country.

Newscasters warn that there is a drought coming. For now, birds are singing and all the valley and coulee bottoms are lush with greenery and the trees are brilliantly shaggy with their new plumage. Only a few ice fields remain on the upper reaches of the mountains, and maybe the forecasters are right. But for now, the beauty of the countryside is overwhelming.

The Country

This region is very special because of its components. About ten miles to the west, the Absaroka mountain range, named for the Crow Indian people, rises up in spectacular grandeur. The Absarokas are part of a larger mountain chain called the Cordillera which extends from northern Alaska all the way down the hemisphere, south to the tip of Tierra del Fuego, forming the spine of our continent.

Some theorists say that after entering North America tens of thousands of years ago, the first immigrants made their way to the eastern side of these mountains. Keeping them in sight to the west and moving south whenever the glaciers cleared, they eventually entered what is now called the United States; and many of these First Americans continued south, enjoying the harvest from the mountains and the plains.

To the east of Chapman Bench lie the plains. Far from being "the Great American Desert," as proclaimed by the early settlers, this area abounded in massive herds of buffalo, and the Indian people followed them for centuries. The buttes or points, the most prominent geological features of the plains, have circles or piles of stones on them, attesting to their early occupancy by Indian holy men. We will never know the full story of these early people, but they were thriving here scores of centuries ago.

Scholars say that after the ancient Indian people crossed the Bering Strait that connected Siberia to Alaska, the weather changed, causing the continental glaciers to melt and the seas to rise, eventually covering with water the entryway between the old and new worlds and isolating these first arrivals. With the other early people in the old world continuing to mix with one another, it would be many centuries before they would occupy general areas and bear specific racial terms or names. Isolated on a previously uninhabited hemisphere, the Indian people remained comparatively pure; there were no other groups with whom to mix. So, it can be said that the Indian people are the oldest identifiable race in the world. How about that?

This Northern Plains area is immense, and while driving along the valley bottoms, one can look around and experience the cleanliness of the air and the beauty of the landscape. Animals are everywhere.

Farmers now grow a wide variety of crops here. Sugar beets, hay, corn and many other cultivated crops color the plowed earth on either side of the road as we travel past. The commercials say that the Indian people call corn "maize." Did anyone ever correlate this term with a known native language? Everyone I know calls it "corn."

As children on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in northern Montana, we frequently went into the local white farmers' cornfields to play. When the leaves on the main stalk enlarge, the fields really are a maze. It was a great place to play hide and seek. When we got hungry, if the time of year was right, we could just reach up and pop off an ear, strip off the husk and silk and eat the kernels raw. Nothing is quite as sweet—with the exception of June berries, of course.

The miles of travel to powwows seem endless but never boring. Once in a while a squabble between the children flares up but soon subsides. We always have the option of listening to the radio when we are close to a town, but the radio signal dies out in the middle of the prairie, and our backup is always audio cassettes.

On Being Indian

Being an Indian in this world is not easy. If you are a laborer or an unskilled worker, you are usually ridiculed at work by the surrounding rednecks. People inquire if you can do a rain dance because it is dry, or ask where is your squaw (meaning your wife), or do you have papooses (meaning babies). This happens all the time. Meeting racism on every front changes you, perhaps distorts you. Reality takes on a different hue and one cannot relax. When your children come home from the city school and tell you some white kid called them prairie niggers, you realize that the cycle of racism is still alive and thriving in Indian country. Whether the racist comments are said as a joke or hatefully, the effect is the same. It is destructive to all parties, and never ceases. The only place to really relax is back home on the reservation surrounded by your people.

As he does everywhere, the Great Spirit in his infinite wisdom bestows a balance here, too. So, if there is a bad part, there is also a good part. It's good being Indian. As we drive across the country and see the trees and coulees and the sage brush and grass covering the prairie, we know this is Indian country, and long ago buffalo covered it from horizon to horizon. We know this has always been our land. We will never emigrate to the British Isles or to Australia or to anywhere. This is our home, good or bad. It is our home and we stick with it, because this is the earth. This is our earth and these hills are our hills. It doesn't matter who owns the deed to the land, because these paper holders change and they will always change. But these hills and mountains and valleys and coulees and bluffs are ours, the Indian people's. They have always been ours and they always will be. We know this. It makes us feel good. No one can change this, and it does not matter if we are poor or not.

They say that no matter where an Indian dies, he always comes home. In my family this is true. My uncle died in California and the family brought him home. This has happened with many other families. Somehow it does not seem right to be buried far away. You have got to be surrounded by your people even then. This is another benefit of being Indian. We know where we came from and we know where we are going to be buried. We have a center to our lives. Out of all this chaos, there is a certain order. We're the only ones in this country who have that advantage. That is good for us.

George Horse-Capture (A'aninin Indian, Gros Ventre) was born in Fort Belknap, Montana in 1937. He received a Bachelor's degree in Anthropology in 1974 from the University of California and a Master's degree from Montana State University in 1979. Horse-Capture went to school to study anthropology and history in order to contribute and commit his life to working toward bettering the condition of the Indian people. He believes that the future of the Native American people lies in a renewed understanding of the old ways. He has worked as an assistant professor in the American Indian Studies at Montana State University and served as curator of the Plains Indian Museum in Cody, Wyoming from 1980-1990. He has also been senior to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.



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