MANDAREE — Hundreds of campers and tents crowd the lawn outside the Mandaree Powwow Grounds.
The powwow arena is quiet on Friday afternoon ahead of the evening’s grand entry. Indigenous vendors circle the outside of the stands where attendees left their lawn chairs set up from the night before. Several food vendors sell fry bread and Indian tacos, and a few sell state fair staples like hamburgers and corn dogs. Others display handmade jewelry for sale.
During the daytime, some powwow-goers head just down the street to the rodeo, featuring steer wrestling, roping and bareback riding among other events. For the people of the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Nation on the Fort Berthold Reservation in northwest North Dakota, rodeos are a long-time custom.
Others spend the afternoon prepping for the powwow: braiding hair, putting on makeup and dressing in traditional regalia.
By 6 p.m., the powwow grounds are bustling with indigenous people from all over the country — from the Oneida Nation in New York, to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, to the Standing Rock Sioux, Oglala Lakota and MHA nations in the Dakotas.
The grand entry begins with U.S. veterans marching into the arena holding the Native American flag, which is made of Eagle feathers, followed by the flag of the United States of America.
Then one by one indigenous dancers — each wearing the traditional regalia of their tribes — walk into the arena until 1,300 people, ranging in age from toddler to elder, dance in a circle to the drum beat.
“Our ancestors died to see this,” said 17-year-old Ira High Elk of MHA Nation. “Our ancestors died fighting to keep our traditions and culture alive.”
Roger White Owl, the chief executive officer of MHA Nation, said: “The powwow is a modern representation of our culture."
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Ruth Swaney, a member of the Salish tribe, drove 750 miles from the Flathead Nation in northwest Montana to attend the Mandaree Hidatsa Powwow for the first time.
She danced in the grand entry. All of her regalia is one-of-a-kind, she said, adding that “you can’t buy it in a store” because she handmade it, doing all of the sewing and beading.
She said she attends powwows for the singing. “It’s hard to explain. You just feel it,” she said. But she also attends to practice the traditions that her ancestors worked hard to keep alive.
“We are going to be who we are,” she said. “We don’t have to suppress or hide that anymore.”
After the grand entry, dancers, drummers and singers from individual tribes each performed, and prizes were given out for the best of each category.
Some attended the event for the camaraderie, others for the drums and dancing. But Lelani Running Bear, a Nakota of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, came for the singing. And to see her daughter and granddaughters dance.
For Morris Bull Bear, a member of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota, he starts attending powwows as early as March, and his last is always in Rapid City in October. He said he started dancing when he was young, and he’s passed it onto his children.
“It’s part of our tradition,” he said. “It’s part of the Indian way.”