KAMIAH — Allen Pierre never lets a good dead pheasant go to waste.
As a cultural specialist at Nkwusm, a Salish language immersion school in Arlee, Mont., Pierre teaches students how to make traditional regalia for powwow dance costumes.
“A lot of the feathers come from a U.S. government repository in Denver,” he said.
The repository receives dead eagles from all across the country. Tribal elders can then request feathers for headdresses, bustles and other parts of a dance costume.
Sporting good stores are another fine source of colored feathers or hair, which are used for fly-tying as well. However, road-kill pheasant are always a great find.
“Any bird I see on the road, within a couple of weeks he’ll be on the dance floor,” Pierre joked.
He and his extended family were in Kamiah this weekend for the 43rd annual Chief Lookingglass Powwow.
The event, which ends today after a 1 p.m. grand entry, attracts dozens of dancers from Idaho and the surrounding states. It’s an opportunity to hear some hypnotic drumming and see spectacular regalia from a number of different tribes.
Pierre took some time before Saturday’s afternoon grand entry to make sure his grandkids understood the proper way to get dressed.
“Sometimes you only have 15 minutes to prepare before the dance starts,” he said, so storing your gear in proper order is important.
Once you’re getting ready, he said, you start at the bottom, with the moccasins and anklets. Then you work your way up through the cuffs, bustle and shoulder epaulettes, before ending with the roach or headdress. After you’re done, you reverse the process, removing the headdress and then working your way back down.
Pierre, 53, has been dancing at powwows since he was a kid. He’d travel across Idaho, Montana, Washington, and sometimes visit Wyoming or South Dakota.
“When you dance, dance from the heart,” he tells the younger generation. “We come (to powwows) to compete, but also because of who we are. It’s a way to show we still carry our traditional values.”
Spencer Two Hatchet grew up in Oklahoma before moving to Kamiah. He also appreciates the traditional nature of powwows. They were originally an opportunity for tribes to socialize. That’s still the case, but there’s also a lot of focus today on competitions.
Two Hatchet himself has been dancing nearly 60 years, since high school.
“I had to do a project for school, so I made a fancy dance costume,” he said. “It’s a war dance. I ran track, so I had the energy for it. My legs were in shape. Now I’m 76. I’m not a young buck anymore.”
Fancy dance is one of a handful of traditional dance styles people will see at powwows. Others include jingle dancers, traditional and grass dancers. Each style comes with specific regalia and steps, although both can vary depending on tribe and personal preference.
“Fancy dance is the most active style for girls,” said 9-year-old Paikea Sammaripa, who was representing Kamiah Elementary at the Chief Lookingglass Pow Wow. “In traditional dance, the steps are slower, like walking. Jingle dance is a little faster. I like fancy dance because you can do different moves and spins.”
Raylynn Moore, Paikea’s mother, said kids may spend a lot of time watching others before settling on a particular style.
“The older you get, the more you realize what you’re capable of,” Moore said. “Younger dancers have the energy to do 20 laps (of the powwow arena). But as you get older, you want people to see the steps you’ve mastered, so you may slow down. And the elders, they don’t care what others think.”
One of the most beautiful sights at any powwow, though, are the incredibly dignified elders as they make their slow, but stately, circuit of the dance arena.
Saturday’s afternoon grand entry, though, was a time for Paikea and other young dancers to strut their stuff. She wore a beaded cape her mother made. It showed Mount Adams, near the Yakima Reservation, where Moore is from. It also had beaded representations of several flowers that grow in Paikea’s great-grandmother’s yard.
“No matter where she goes, I want her to know where she’s from,” Moore said.
Although her daughter enjoys dancing just for fun, on Saturday she entered the dance competition. Among other criteria, judges will look at how well a dancer’s steps match the drum beat, as well as having their regalia in place.
For 15-year-old Ashton Stadtmiller, Saturday’s powwow had a spiritual element as well.
“I have some family members who need prayer,” he said as he prepared his traditional dance costume. When he’s dancing, “I think about my family, about all the things I have and the things people have done for me. I try to be humble out there.”
Being hydrated is important, too. A full complement of regalia may weigh 20 pounds or more. The temperature wasn’t too bad in Kamiah Saturday, but Pierre remembers dancing there when it was 109 degrees.
But hot or not, it’s important to him to see his grandkids in the arena dancing.
“Language and dancing: those are the two things we pray our youngsters get into,” he said.
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