Stand close to the drums and feel their thunder. Voices rise in the air, singing of brave warriors, creatures of nature or beautiful women--stories first told when the land was young.
The dancers move nearby in the sacred circle. They are young and old, clad in buckskin and feather, porcupine quill and deerskin moccasin. Steps can be slow and stately or spirited and athletic. As darkness falls the voices soar, the dancers whirl in a splendor of color, the thunder of drums echoing off the trees.
This is an intertribal powwow, Southern California style. Derived from ancient religious ceremonies, powwows are increasingly popular for Southlanders who gather to socialize and revel in their Native American heritage.
San Fernando Valley area residents will soon have an opportunity to become acquainted with this uniquely American tradition in Lancaster at powwows April 7-9 at Antelope Valley College, and April 14-16 at the Antelope Valley Fairgrounds.
Held at different places throughout Southern California almost every weekend from spring through fall, powwows have a decidedly wholesome atmosphere: They attract a lot of families and they never allow alcohol or drugs. Visitors can shop for turquoise jewelry, dine on Navaho tacos and meet dancers wearing breathtaking feathered and beaded regalia.
Here is where American Indians pass on their heritage of singing and dancing and their reverence for nature, and where they stay in touch with their roots.
"It's a time for me to get away from things. I can have a lot of my culture all around me. It's like a little reality check," said 17-year-old Monica Big Left Hand of San Fernando, who grew up on the Cheyenne reservation at Lame Deer, Mont.
But, mirroring the sentiments of many young people, she acknowledges: "I like to go and see all my friends and dance and enjoy myself."
The growing popularity of powwows is something that Southlanders of Native American origin said they are pleased--but not surprised--about.
Some give credit to "Dances With Wolves," the 1990 movie about a white man adopted by Sioux that unabashedly romanticizes American Indian culture. Matthew Whitebear McMasters, head of the Native American Student Council sponsoring the All Nations Pow-Wow at Antelope Valley College, said that after that movie "people began to realize that it's kind of cool right now (to be Native American)."
Others cite the increase of American Indian descendants counted by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1990. For instance, the census reported 120% more Chumash, originally the tribes living along the Southern California coast. Anthropologists credit that more to self-identification than a baby boom, evidence that people are more proud of their heritage even if it is diluted by intermarriage.
"Being an Indian is something you find in yourself," said McMasters, who said his father is Irish, his mother half Apache and half Cherokee.
Still others see powwows as a reaction to perceived isolation and fear in modern urban society.
"People in the dominant society are looking for something that they haven't found in their lives," said Saginaw Grant of Reseda, who is Sauk-Fox. "We all have within us spirituality, and being around Native people brings us closer to nature, and this is the way to make our spirituality grow within."
Whatever the reason, it's obvious that "Indian culture is back on the rise," in the words of Edna Rutledge, 17, Big Left Hand's cousin and a resident of the Pala Reservation in San Diego County.
"I want to hold on to my traditional ways and pass them on to my children," said the Fallbrook High School senior, who plans to attend UC Berkeley next year and often wins cash prizes dancing at powwows.
Rutledge cuts a stunning figure in the arena, wearing a dress decorated with intricate Cheyenne beadwork, fringe and 365 metal cones that jingle when she moves.
Her jingle dress, the cones formed from snuff can lids in a custom traced to Northeast U.S. Ojibwa tribes, represents one of several distinct powwow dance styles. Others include the beaded buckskin or wool dresses of the slower moving women's traditional dancers, and the elaborately colorful fringed shawls of the faster, high-kicking fancy shawl dancers.
Men compete in the so-called straight dance, originally a war dance; the fancy dance, featuring colorful regalia with hundreds of feathers, and the grass dance, distinguished by outfits with long fringe. Those outfits were worn by dancers who stomped down tall grasses to make a clearing for ceremonial gatherings in the Northern Plains.
The chance to learn more about Native American customs is among the great attractions of a powwow. To join in, simply bring a lawn chair and picnic lunch, if you want, and pick out a spot on the edge of the dance circle. Twenty-five to 50 yards or more in diameter, the circle surrounds the host drum in the middle. Other drums present are arrayed at intervals around the edge.
The word drum refers to both the device and the group playing it. The instruments are typically handmade of materials such as wood slats or a hollow log, with either calfskin or commercially available plastic stretched over the opening.
Seated around it, the drum teams are predominantly male. Members sing while drumming, using sticks, with heads fashioned from cotton wrapped in leather. When a woman is invited to join by the group's leader, the head singer, she customarily stands behind the seated men as they play.
Drums are categorized as either northern or southern: They sing either in the tenor pitch of the Northern Plains style or in the deep-pitched voice favored by Southwestern tribes.
Powwows generally begin with gourd dances that traditionally honor veterans. The hypnotic beat of victory songs sets the stage for the evening's festivities. The veterans move slowly in their majestic ceremonial clothes, facing the drum and stepping clockwise around the circle, keeping time with heavy gourd rattles.
The veterans then post the colors to one of the flag songs played at every powwow. Then one of the most riveting moments of all: the grand entry of all the dancers--young and old, man and woman alike, who enter from the east and fill the arena in a stunning array of traditional finery.
A circle dance generally follows, with everybody present, Natives and non-Natives alike, invited into the arena in a show of unity and fellowship.
Late in the afternoon, everybody takes a dinner break. This is a good opportunity to shop for jewelry and handicrafts at the booths of vendors, which generally form a wider circle encompassing the crowd around the dance arena.
Then the powwow gets down to the business of the contested dances, when you can expect to see the most exciting performances by dancers competing for up to hundreds of dollars in prize money. From around the circle, spectators urge on their favorites.
Throughout the day and night, as you walk around the gathering, you will encounter hospitable people of all ages willing to chat at great length about their dance clothes or way of life on the reservation.
"I've never seen a dancer not talk to somebody who asked them about their outfit," said McMasters. "But be sure to approach them politely and respectfully."
Some American Indians are insulted by visitors who start taking pictures without asking, said Bryan BrightCloud of Granada Hills, master of ceremonies of the All Nations Pow-Wow. An individual's regalia can be unique to a family, he said, making it somewhat proprietary. Regalia can also be the expression of deep-seated images arising from dreams or visions.
Sylvan Beautiful Bald Eagle of Camarillo said his regalia was inspired by a dream. It features a circle of eagle feathers and a mounted hawk at the train. The black and white of his shirt, he said, symbolize times when he abused alcohol contrasted with his reformed life of sobriety. A native of the Lakota reservation at Standing Rock, N.D., Beautiful Bald Eagle will be the head man dancer at the All Nations Pow-Wow, a position of respect granted to senior traditional dancers who lead the others into the arena.
The ceremonial origin of powwows provides spiritual elements expressed in many of the customs.
Each powwow begins with a blessing of the ground, in which elders or medicine men walk ritually around the circle, saying prayers and burning sage and tobacco. The ground is thus regarded as sacred, and it is forbidden to walk across the circle. Similarly, the circle will become unholy if any dancer drops a feather. In that event the drums stop, dancers withdraw and the medicine man blesses the ground before dancing may resume.
Visitors will also notice that people customarily don't applaud after a song. Such a gesture would be comparable to members of a congregation applauding a choir during church services. Occasionally, however, the master of ceremonies will exhort the crowd to give the drummers and singers a round of applause.
This is one small reflection of the evolving nature of powwows from a tribal ceremony to a modern urban social gathering. Young people adopt their elders' ways and adapt them to their own needs. For instance, some powwows have included American Indian rap singers, blending African American urban culture. This makes some Native Americans cringe, but others welcome the new style.
Similarly, many American Indians refuse to use the word "entertainment" to describe a powwow.
"There are good things and bad things (about the growth of powwows)," said Daron Ahhaitty, whose family has sung at powwows for many years. "But we don't like to call this entertainment" because of the spiritual origin.
Nonetheless, powwows are largely about dancing and singing, and that's what the people like, from the first mesmerizing gourd dance--originally a war dance--to the last men's fancy dance, in which athletic young men adorned in colorful feathered regalia compete for hundreds of dollars in prizes.
A winner in dance contests throughout the United States, Aaron Neskahi of Canyon Country leads a group of Native Americans who gather Monday nights in La Crescenta as the Red Road Culture Center.
The "red road" has a special meaning among Native Americans, referring to a newly reacquired pride in tribal, or traditional ways. Neskahi's group gets together to practice singing, dancing and making regalia.
He sports a white grass-dance outfit, and his fluid motion is reminiscent of a bobcat or a fox bounding gracefully over the prairie. Expressing reverence for nature, many movements of the dancers are adopted from the animal realm, Neskahi said. The stalking steps of a coyote or the hawklike turning of the head or the eyes may be seen among better dancers.
Dramatic and colorful, Native American dancers have found a ready market in Hollywood for their skills. Neskahi, a native of the Navaho reservation at Shiprock, N.M., has appeared in several films, including a prominent sequence in "On Deadly Ground."
Saginaw Grant moved from Oklahoma four years ago to pursue a career in entertainment, and his classic American Indian features have helped win him roles in "Baywatch," "Picket Fences" and other television shows. Earlier this month he shot a Planters Peanuts commercial for a nationwide campaign.
Mary All Runner of El Cajon, who is Cheyenne, recently worked on location in Canada as a technical adviser in a theatrical production. A native Oklahoman who came west in 1956, All Runner said that powwows "have gotten to be a big thing nowadays because families want to keep their traditions and culture going."
She advised people awakening to their Native American heritage to learn as much as they can about their ancestors' tribe, and build from there. For instance, she said, Cheyennes are known for their beautiful and elaborate beadwork, which you will see on dresses of buckskin and satin around the powwow circle.
All around the arena, the drums roll and the voices sing. Watch the beads and feathers and the step of the dancers, Saginaw Grant says.
"There are a lot of little stories to hear if you are alert," Grant said. "So many things are going on. So many things telling themselves if you will hear them."
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Where and When
What: All Nations Pow-Wow.
Location: Antelope Valley College, 3041 W. Ave. K, Lancaster.
Hours: 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. April 7; 10 a.m. to midnight April 8, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.April 9.
Call: (805) 944-6055.
What: Antelope Valley Powwow.
Location: Antelope Valley Fairgrounds, 155 E. Ave. I, Lancaster.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. April 14; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. April 15, and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 16.
Price: $5 parking fee. Admission free.
Call: (805) 948-6060