Studio of Edwin & Marcia Ward

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

At Powwow

Cover Photography - Marcia Ward

At Powwow

as always
for Marcia

Just now the first car to head south out of Rexburg since an hour ago screeches to a stop fifty feet past me and my girlfriend Lucia, as if the driver hadn't seen us until he passed us. His car is an old Fifty-two Chevy Belair. The driver is as young as the car is old. He's got thin straggly hair down to his shoulders. He's missing teeth, upper and lower, in the center of his mouth, but he smiles widely nonetheless.

After a quick introduction, he tells us, “A hockey puck took out my front pearly whites. I played a year of semi-pro hockey after the Marines. Grew up in Canada, but I got relatives here on the Res. You guys headed to Powwow?”

“We're headed south. Eventually towards Bryce and then the Grand Canyon. Mostly we're just wandering and having a look at the West. What's this Powwow?”

“It's the yearly big-to-do on the Blackfoot Reservation. Everybody comes from all over the Res and pitches camp for a week. There's a rodeo and dancing and food and party mayhem. Kids come and fall in love. Lot's of gambling, too. It's a party. That's where I'm headed, you should check it out before you head south to Idaho Falls.”

“Can we camp there, I mean at Powwow?”

“Hell, anybody can. A lot of people from town come out. It's a good time. I been coming off and on since I was a kid. My aunt married into the tribe.”

Contrary to the advice of Bill Rex - who had dropped us off here before hightailing it into the further wilderness - to only accept a long ride out of Rexburg, we accept this short hitch. Twenty miles down the road we exit the blacktop on to a dirt road, and a mile and a half later after ascending a rise I catch sight of maybe fifty large white tepees that ring the southern and western edge of a large oval, the eastern rim of which is comprised of RV's and pickups and cars of all sorts, some down right ancient. The northern end of the oval is a rudimentary area fenced off for rodeo-ing. There's but one stand of trees off to the north where there are a few smaller non-traditional tents staked out. Outside the configured oval to the west there are tented booths serving as concession stands and a couple of small amusement rides.

G. G., our new friend, parks the Chevy on the rim of the oval and scrambles out of the car. “See you around. I've got to go find the drummers. My cousin is one, and around the drummers you'll find the beautiful women, and that's where you'll find me. Hey, sleep in my car if you want. I'll be hanging with my cousin.”

Lucy and I decide to stay for a day or so and wind up staying three days on the Blackfoot Reservation at Powwow. We put up my orange mountain tent amidst the chaos of campers and canvas at the north end of the site. It looks so puny, almost silly, given the noble beauty of the tall white tepees.

Lucia and I have a great time. The visual experience of Powwow is surreal and religious; the ceremonial clothing is part of the highest theater.

The partying is just about around the clock. A cold Coors can be had for fifty cents and a can of pop or juice for a quarter. Frybread is available anytime, day or night. About the only time there's little going on is late mornings. But starting about one in the afternoon the activity is ceaseless and the spirit of this annual rite of summer is contagious.

The days at powwow develop a pattern. We sleep until late morning, eat fry bread for breakfast, watch the rodeo in the afternoon, drink a few late afternoon beers and get high, retire to the tent for the late afternoon to fuck and to nap, eat a dinner of roast corn and bean burritos for the price of a subway token, Steppenwolf a walk outside the Powwow site to smoke a joint, and then return to watch the dancing and listen to the drumming until the wee hours. When we crawl into the tent at say three in the morning, most of the rendezvous-ers are still up and partying. It seems like some of the gambling games go on round the clock.

Basically, although there are a few tourists and townees around in the afternoon to watch the rodeo, Lucy and I are the only white people at Powwow. Our white sticks out among the Blackfoot as the orange of our tent does among the whiteness of the tepees. Lucy's height and my long curly hair give us away even at a distance. For the most part no one seems to care that we are among them. On three separate occasions we are invited to eat with someone. During our time in conversation with the people who befriend us, we are peppered with questions about the most ordinary of subjects. Who's my favorite singer? Do we like football? Of what religion am I? Does Lucy have a beauty secret, as her skin is so perfect? Do we hunt? Do we fish? Have we been to Yellowstone? Did I serve in Viet Nam? What's my favorite beer? What's the best movie out now? I decide we are as exotic and interesting to the Blackfoot as they are to me, judging by their response to our answers to those questions. We laugh and argue opinions.

The most haunting and beautiful aspect of Powwow is the dancing. It begins a short time after dusk. The dancers, men and women, are dressed in traditional ceremonial clothes. The women wear soft skin dresses that sing and the men wear fringe that whips the air about them. Apparently every dance narrates some aspect of Blackfoot history. Generally the dancers follow the route of a large circle. Sometimes during the course of a rotation, dancers will change places or drop out only to return at a later point in the progress of the dance, sometimes wearing different clothing. Movement is for the most part minimal but continual, although there are times of occasional frenzied dancing. The stories we watch danced out are sedate, serious. The most remarkable aspect of the dancing is its duration. For hours dancers dance, some almost seem entranced. Lucy and I watch, we drink beer, we sneak around smoking pot, and we pick up on the trance-like state of two a.m., as a big sliver of moon sails west above our heads amidst a hundred million stars while forty beaded and braided and quilled dancers retell the centuries old tale of the tribe, the dancers and audience aglow in the yellow, red light of the bonfires, bound by the groove of the singing and drumming set by the musicians, all of whom have hair longer than that of the new rock stars. As I imagine the dancers do likewise, I feel that I am watching and walking in my sleep, witnessing a communal dream, lucky and blessed to be here, privy to the expression of such tribal ritual.

Lucy, my film buff companion, says, “Fellini and Truffaut ought to see this!”

Our last night at Powwow, we run into a wee bit of trouble.

It's about midnight, Friday about to become Saturday. Lucia and I have been watching about twenty people, grandmothers, young men and women, parents with babes in their arms, doing some serious gambling. The game is one of deception and guessing. No cards are involved although the players all wear poker faces. With eight players to both of two sides, one of whom seems to be principal player or games-man, the teams drum on a log between them and hope to guide their games-man to be right when the time to speak or nod or reveal is at hand. A lot of money changes hands. Players come and go although I notice many seem never to leave the game. The stoic partnership of the players reminds me of pinochle. I'm still trying to figure out the fine points of the game and watching intently when Lucia interrupts my study.

“There's a drunk behind us talking' bad about us. I don't speak Blackfoot but I get his meaning. He's talking trash. He wants to provoke a fight. With you or anyone who would defend you.”

I turn and take in the scene behind me. A guy in a white, fringed shirt, cowboy hat and boots, bolo, and blue jeans stands amidst three or four other men. He is intoxicated and posturing. He switches in the middle of a sentence from his native tongue to English, ending with “White trash ain't welcome at Powwow.” A smallish man, wiry, he actually looks to be as white as he is Blackfoot. He's probably one of the rodeo riders.

The situation is delicate. I am not naive. As a kid I've been in this situation before: punk with a chip on his drunken shoulder and a minor player egging him on. I am aware of a dozen things on the tip of my tongue, beginning with asshole and ending with zit face. I choose silence. I am aware that everyone is interested in my response. The stage is set for drama, comedy or tragedy, who knows? I step out of the crowd into a more lighted area near the entrance to the rodeo rink. All the while I am scanning the crowd, hoping that maybe G.G.’s around, looking in to each and every one's eyes for an instant. I trust the love in my heart. Things will work out well I tell myself. I catch sight of Little Man as he steps out of the crowd he's with. For an instant we are both on a field of his drunken honor. He spits tobacco juice onto the Idaho dust – which is not the same as tossing tobacco to honor the four directions. He mouths “White Trash” in my direction. I do not bite at his racist bait. In fact, as if nothing of any consequence is happening, as if anything said or done by him could never matter, I step back into the circle of people gathered near Lucia, as if I am nothing but a figment of his imagination. Any fight now is solely at his instigation. He turns to look at his friends for support and further encouragement but none is forthcoming. It seems as if the eyes of the entire tribe are watching. The balance of savage and social is being determined. The moment to look good or vain in the eyes of the gods crawls. Lucia and I so meld with the spirit of the others around us that we effectively disappear. Lucia takes up talking with the people, a family of five, those she'd been conversing with when she'd first overheard him. We all are laughing at a remark of the youngest. The drunk can only now make a fool of himself if he goes on with his braggadocio and threats, no matter what language he chooses to make them in. Others will intervene, elders or friend, for he is out of hand. Everyone, even he, knows his words are hollow. My silence makes them arguably lame.

Throughout the whole minute or two that it takes for this incident to occur, I am aware of the presence of evil. The face it wears is incidental. I've seen troublemakers before. Usually it takes more than one man to open the door to war.

Later after watching a couple hours of dancing Lucia and I return to our tent. A wariness pervades our consciousness. I feel alien this night. I am not horny. My sleep is uneasy.

Rather than stay another day for the conclusion of the festivities - there is an all Blackfoot band going to play some rock and roll prior to the last of the ceremonial dances - we break camp and hike out to the road early in the morning. The trouble that didn't erupt last night could easily happen again should I run into Little Man again. The first mile is up hill. Neither of the two cars that pass us heading out offers us a ride.

Near the top of the hill we stop, as that is the best place to hitch from. We look back on the Powwow scene below. Smoke is now rising from breakfast campfires. The dust of activity in the rodeo arena floats in the cloudless sunlight of Idaho morning. From this vantage point I imagine Little Man searching the campground for sight of me. He's got to watch out for his own back now. He’s hung-over and can't find me. He doesn't know what I might do. He's not sure if I was ever there. He's now got another chip on his shoulder. Another reason to dislike himself. There's no such thing as a happy racist.

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