Dancing to the beat – what it all means

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The jingle of bells hung from clothing and the rhythmic beats and chanting from the Kenai-based Midnight Sun drum group announced the arrival of about 20 dancers who moved toward the center of David Salmon Tribal Hall Saturday afternoon.

Don “Standing Bear” Forest used a feather to waft burning sage toward the group, which was led by five military veterans carrying flags.

Once all the dancers reached the center of room, the veterans lowered the poles so other participants could hang an eagle feather on the flags that represented the United States, the state of Alaska, POW/MIA, Alaska Native Veterans Association and the Marine Corps.

Two of the five drum groups staged against a nearby wall then played songs specifically designed to honor veterans and the flags.

As is the custom with most powwows held across North America, honoring veterans was the focus at the start of a powwow held at the tribal hall Saturday in conjunction with the Festival of Native Arts. The festival continues through Sunday at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
An estimated 250 people attended the powwow, which followed a potlatch also held at the tribal hall.

Benno Cleveland, a Native man from Fairbanks who fought during the Vietnam War, said the start of the ceremony, called the “grand entry,” is designed to show respect for men and women who make sacrifices for the benefit of their people.

A powwow can often represent another stage of healing for veterans, he said.

“When we get out there and dance, some of that helps heal the veterans,” said Cleveland, who directed the group of veterans and dancers during the grand entry.

After honoring the veterans, the focus of the powwow then shifted to celebrating life.

“We gather all people and we celebrate life and we do that with song and dance and we try to teach our youth dignity and respect,” said Forest, who’s been the lead organizer of several Fairbanks-area powwows in the past.

Saturday’s powwow became less formal after the grand entry, with the drum groups taking turns playing and chanting while people in the crowd ventured to the open floor space and moved with the beats. Some of the dancers wore elaborate Native clothing for the event while others came in casual attire.

Although Alaska Natives made up the majority of those in attendance at the event, powwows and the tradition of a several-member group sitting around one large drum and playing together did not start with Alaska tribes, said Ben Boyd, a Fairbanksan who served as the lead dancer for the powwow.

He said powwows originated in the Lower 48 and have since become a forum for people from not only different tribes but also different races to gather and celebrate life.

“Alaska is one of the last places that intertribal drumming has come to in North America,” said Boyd, a Fairbanksan who is originally from Oklahoma and has a Cherokee heritage.

Boyd said he is a medicine dancer who enters a spiritual trance when he moves with the drum beats at a powwow.

“That’s why I’m 59 years old and I can still go out there and keep up with this teenager stuff,” he said.

For Cleveland, the power of the drum beat seems to be a natural draw for people ranging from dancers at pow wows to rock ‘n’ roll fans.

“A funny thing is we always want to think we’re the only ones,” he said.

Cleveland said many people who come to powwows often think of the drum beat as the heartbeat of the Earth and its people.

“I’ve heard some people say that if the drumming ceases, then life itself will cease,” he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: 

Reporter Dan Rice writes for the News Miner. He can be reached at [email protected] or 459-7503.