“I hear the beat of the drum, straight down into my soul … and it’s quite a healing experience.”
By Katie Stearns
The powerful drums are no match for voices dominating a circular arena rimmed with spectators, some donning traditional garb, others there simply to watch.
“It’s our time and our space when we’re at a pow-wow,” said Sandy White Hawk, a Sicangu Lakota who found pow-wows later in life. She was adopted into a white missionary family when she was 18 months but began attending pow-wows in 1988 after reconnecting with her family.
For her, a pow-wow was a place to reconnect to a culture from which she’d been severed.
Within the arena, a cluster of men pound the animal hide drums relentlessly in harmony. Then the singing begins, melodic notes and complementing the rhythm of the drums.
“Because the drum represents our heartbeat and who we are, and when you hear that, you can’t help but be settled and you just, I don’t know how to put it into words,” White Hawk said.
And it is to this marriage of voices and beats that the Native American men and women veterans, usually part of a color guard, enter the pow-wow arena. This is the Grand Entry – one portion of the overall ceremony but also the moment when elders, veterans and other respected guests step into the celebration.
For Jan Malcom, a 62-year-old Oneida and a Women’s Army Corp veteran, walking into the Grand Entry, side by side with other veterans, is humbling.
“It’s a real honor. Especially when other veterans join us because when we get done, we’ll post the flags and we’ll peel off one by one, and shake each other’s hands and just say, “Welcome home.” It’s quite an honor to be carrying those flags in.”
Sprinkled throughout the pow-wow grounds are myriad dances, which can vary by region and the tribe. Some dances – like the Two-Step, Round Dance and the Gourd Dance –can transcend regions, sprouting all over the country.
Beyond these traditional dances and celebratory theme, a pow-wow is a chance for many Natives to find peace, a cultural healing of sorts.
“I hear the beat of the drum, straight down into my soul … and it’s quite a healing experience,” Malcom said
Lisa Jendry, a 30-year-old Lakota Sioux, was given an eagle plume and the name Okicizewin, or “War Woman,” at the first pow-wow she attended after returning from war.
“It’s really strong, especially when you’re out there in the middle and you have all these dancers around you and the drums, and they’re singing, especially if they’re singing a veteran song or a flag song or a song for soldiers,” she said.
When White Hawk was reuniting herself with her culture, she recalled an Indian woman who told her: Sandy, just go to pow-wows and don’t try to figure out everything all at once. Find the drums you like to listen to, and sit by them and just listen.
“For me, for someone who didn’t grow up hearing the drum, who didn’t grow up hearing the songs, didn’t grow up around that, pow-wows for me were really healing,” White Hawk said.