There was a time when the United States government forbade their songs and dances.
A time when ancestors were killed and the drum nearly fell silent.
“It was a sad time for us,” said Wichitan Pauline Sharp, a member of the Kanza tribe and granddaughter of Lucy Tayiah Eads, the first female chief of the Kaw or Kanza nation.
“There was a time when we got down to 187 tribal members.”
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But Kanzas survive. As do people who are Kiowa, Ponca, Sioux, Cheyenne, Chickasaw and Pawnee.
This weekend is about celebrating their survival.
The American Indian Festival at Century II’s Expo Hall will feature 200 to 300 dancers from more than 70 tribes, mostly Plains Indians. The powwow, which will include an arts and craft fair, booths and food, is the largest event put on each year by the Mid-America All-Indian Center.
Why have a powwow?
“It’s to renew friendships, see relatives and make new friends,” said Eugene “Louie” Stumbling Bear, a Kiowa, whose family was forced from Kansas in the late 1860s into Oklahoma and brought back in the 1940s when workers were needed to fill Wichita’s aircraft plants. He is this year’s chairman of the festival contest powwow.
“The drums are like a healing. If you feel bad or down in the dumps, go to a powwow. You can hear certain songs, a song you really like, it can pick you up,” Stumbling Bear said.
At a powwow, the drum becomes the heartbeat of a people.
“It means that a strength of our culture did not get annihilated,” said Lynn Byrd Stumbling Bear, Louie’s wife, who is of Chickasaw descent. She is also the chairwoman of the Mid-America All-Indian Center’s board of trustees.
“There was never a time when it was not part of my life. When you realize how close we came in not having this opportunity, it was eye-opening for me,” she said. “This is tradition and part of the reason I have always tried to involve my children, grandchildren and now my great-grandchildren.”
The powwow, Sharp says, “ is part of our nation’s culture, not just Native culture, but a part of our country’s culture.”
In the 1870s, the federal government began pushing American Indians off their traditional grounds and onto reservations after adopting Capt. Richard H. Pratt’s philosophy, “Kill the Indian, but save the man.”
Young Native Americans were forced to attend boarding schools. Most were forbidden to practice tribal beliefs and dance native songs. The government’s restrictions on Indians continued well into the 1940s.
“My mother and father went to boarding schools, they weren’t allowed to speak the language,” Louie Stumbling Bear said. “But they went out by the river and kept their language and dances alive. It was all under the radar.”
And so it was with other tribes, with the traditions and languages passed on to a new generation.
A powwow is open to anyone who wants to attend.
“Some people have lived in Wichita all their life and never been to a powwow,” Louie Stumbling Bear said.
“It is part of Wichita’s culture – like cowboys and Indians.”
The inter-tribal dances allow anyone – any tribe, any race – to participate and will be announced at the beginning of each song. Some dances, however, are strictly for competition, and only registered dancers may participate.
There will be fancy dancers, straight dancers and grass dancers, shawl dancers and jingle dress dancers.
The fancy dances started in the 1950s with the Poncas, Stumbling Bear said, and have since spread around the nation.
“It is now a blur of colors and fast steps,” he said. “You have to be in pretty good shape or a young man to do them.”
Each of the tribes represented at this year’s powwow have a vested interest in making sure that each person attending is dancing well and representing the culture, Lynn Stumbling Bear said.
“It is a matter of pride and a matter of carrying on the tradition,” she said.
Powwows are also about celebrating the art and crafts of Native Americans – even the foods.
Indian fry bread is a delicacy at powwows and often shared with family and friends. The Mid-America All-Indian Center has published a cookbook of some of its members most cherished recipes, including fry bread.
Proceeds from this year’s powwow go toward sustaining the Indian Center and financing next year’s powwow, said April Scott, the center’s director.