I can already hear the sounds of the drums, beating at a rhythmic pace. Several voices are chanting in a sing song language, that I do not understand. An unusual smell is wafting across the heart of the gathering, to where I am sitting. Sage is the herb that is being burnt, meant to cleanse and purify the Pow-wow grounds of any negative energy. My family will dance in the ceremonial circle, at least one time around, what we call, “The Sacred Circle”.
The Pow-wow is usually held the second week of July, behind the Carlson Center, in Fairbanks, Alaska. The tribal council named it, “Midnight Sun Inter-Tribal Pow-wow”. The meaning behind this name is that no matter what tribe you are from or what quantum of Indian blood you carry, you are welcome to attend the Pow-wow and partake in its entirety. All they ask is that everyone has to be sober and drug free.
The Pow-wow is roped off, so there is only one entry into the celebration. Inside this roped area, there is a huge umbrella canopy. Surrounding the core are store front tents, of all sizes and shapes. The vendors are selling hand-crafted items like, dream catchers, beaded hair pieces and earrings, original artwork on canvas, and drums. Other vendors are selling food items like, Indian Fry Bread, ice-cream and sodas. The teepees are set up a few feet away from all the hustle and bustle. The teepees are decorated and adorned with tribal designs, representing the clan that is staying there. Designs like the Eagle feathers are associated with honor. The hand symbolizes man, and his accomplishments. People are most familiar with the Kokopelli design; it symbolizes fertility, mainly male fertility, as well as they are protector of the seeds. The floor inside the main canopy is just grass and dirt, with bales of straw outlining the tent to shape a circle. Fold up chairs are set up, three or four rows deep, so people can rest and watch.
My family and I attend the Pow-wow on the last day, which is a Sunday. We arrive for the opening ceremony, where the Veterans carry the flags and perform the flag ceremony. The Veterans are recognized for their service to the United States. The men and women of the Armed Forces travel around the circle to the sound of the drum, shaking hands with everyone on the outer rim. The deep heartfelt pride that is being shared from the Veterans’ to the native people is tremendously moving. The emotions of thankfulness, humbleness and modesty are felt from all that are there witnessing this ceremony. The flag ceremony performed by the Veteran’s needs to be experienced by all people, to feel the comradery and togetherness, that the people are one.
The drums start to beat again and I can see the pollen vibrating on the skin of the drums. The singers start chanting about how the Water Spider captures the first fire. The Cherokee tale about the First Fire has been passed down from many generations. The Water Spider has black downy hair and red stripes on her body. She can run on top of water and she can dive to the bottom. She has no trouble in getting to the island to get fire for the people. She is little and she can spin thread to make a little bowl that she carries on her back. Every since then, the people have had fire. The Water Spider still has her little bowl on her back.
The smoke from the sage burning is swirling around the drummers, as if trying to keep them entangled in the legend that they are singing. The leader calls out to the audience for all the women to dance and to dance with a wrap from their clan.
My oldest/youngest daughters and I are dancing in the sacred circle together for the first time. I am very moved by this experience having each of my daughters dance beside me. Each of us is wrapped in a long rectangle piece of brightly colored fabric that I had to fold in half, lengthwise, because it was so wide. On each of the ends, it has beautiful silky fringe, in a color that compliments the main fabric. The wraps are usually seen in vibrant colors such as, red, turquoise blue, azure, yellows and greens. Wearing this wrap while dancing represents that I am in full Indian dress for the dance. We moved our arms in time to the drumbeat and swung the wrap back and forth. As we stepped to the beat of the drums, we moved around the outer rim of the circle together. While we dance, I wanted to remember this feeling of being so proud of my girls and how much I love them. I wanted to slow that moment down, to savor each and every step that we took together. I will always have this snap shot of a memory with me forever.
I can smell the faint scent of sage again, not so strong this time. I can hear the soft sounds of footsteps and beads jingling, as some of the dancers walk towards me. Men, woman and children clad in their full native dress. The sage smell is getting stronger, the drums start their beat, the rattles start to shake, and the announcer says to the crowd, “Everyone in full native dress is welcome to dance the “Stomp Dance”.
Some of the native people there are wearing their full native dress, the attire is absolutely breathtaking. The men’s clothing, I have to say is the most elaborate of all. Most of the beadwork on these pieces of formal clothing is so intricate and small; it must take months to finish even a small section. A person can see the pride in how the native people wear their formal dress and represent their clan at the Pow-wow.
The most important part of the Pow-wow for our family is the Bald Eagle release. The Pow-wow does an eagle release every year. The Bird Treatment and Learning Center usually brings up a rehabilitated bird for the occasion. The Bald Eagle gets released usually mid afternoon, after prayers and songs from a special guest. The Bald Eagle flew very low this year and then across the river, to roost in a Spruce tree. I have heard the predictions by the Indian people about the eagle and which way it flies when released and what it means. I cannot remember now what was said about the direction that the eagle flies. But when an eagle drops a feather as it did this year, it is considered quite a gift. An elder says a blessing over the dropped feather and then it is given to the designated holder of such blessed gifts for the tribe.
I look forward to the Pow-wow every year; it holds a special meaning for me. Maybe attending the Pow-wow is what a person feels when they go to church on Sundays; they somehow feel closer to God. I’m not a religious person in that sense, but I have a strong spiritual need to go to the Pow-wow every year. I enjoy seeing friends that I haven’t heard from since last year and to catch up with them about their lives. To dance the “Sacred Circle”, with my family and feel that we have completed this journey together; so that we will have peace for the rest of the year. I know it sounds superstitious about having to dance the circle and maybe it is. But it makes me feel connected to the earth and all the people, united in a sense. When I leave the Pow-wow, the sacred circle, I have a sense of significance, and completeness. I am at peace.
The Sacred Circle that we dance
It feels as if it will last
Time stands still if only for a moment
As if in a trance