Driving north on Highway 87 in north-central Montana you come over the big hill just south of Big Sandy (Testerville) and the Bear Paw Mountains suddenly come into full view. It does not matter how many times I do it, my mental reaction is always the same; Home!!
As I continue on to the little border town of Box Elder onto the reservation I pass all three of the Bars in a town that has a population of less than 200 people. There was a time when I spent a lot of time and money in those bars, except Jitterbugs, which was not there before I quit. As I proceed up the Lower Road (As opposed to the “Upper Road”-we like to keep things simple,) I am in the playground of my youth; an area some 8 miles along Box Elder Creek to Square Butte on the north, Duck Creek on the south and Bonneau Dam to the east. I spent many a summer day from morning until dusk on that reservoir swimming, fishing, rafting and scavenging lures and other fishing gear lost by unlucky fisherman. I also took home some horrible sunburns in early summer and not a few strange rashes.
Just past Bonneau Dam I come into view of the Rocky Boy Pow Wow grounds off in the distance. The first thing I notice is the white cones of canvas tepees in a large ring that runs about 100 yards across with the “arbor” in the middle covered with Quaking Aspen branches. No plywood, tin or fiberglass-its real freshly cut branches. Various family camps around the arbor (spots kept for generations) also sport smaller “shades” made from the same tree branches. Some have been augmented with blue tarps but usually as side panels not as roofing. Long picnic tables are strung together at those family camps that will be putting on a “feed” for visitors or to honor a family member or just to feed anyone who is lucky enough to be around when the food is put out. (Some of those picnic table probably bare a U.S. Government or State Park stamp underneath, but we won't discuss that.)
As I approach the camp I see several Law Enforcement vehicles at a “road block” and I see your my wife's nephew looking fierce in his dark blue uniform with his pepper spray case on his hip and his big “gentle giant” smile on his face. Who would have ever thought he would be a cop? I also notice several other young officers, some of whom I knew as teenagers but were mostly being chased by cops at that age. Time changes things. They give a cursory look into the car and ask if we have any alcohol, weapons or drugs to which we respond in the negative. They waive us through with a compliment on our bucked seat belts.
The first audio sensation is the hardly noticeable but constantly present hand drums and sticks on stick pounding coming from the Hand Game (Stickgame) area. It starts an evening or two before the Pow Wow and continues to the early hours of Monday morning. You learn to sleep with the sound like you sleep with the sound of a furnace coming off an on. Its just there, like a heartbeat. I continue on to the “parking area” which is anywhere you can park but not in the “midway” area around the dance arbor. I give up looking for a spot near the arbor and cross the little coulée over to the Top Sky family camp where I know I can always squeeze in somewhere and where the dancers in the family can get their regalia on while visiting back and forth. I notice that the water spigot near the trail over to the arbor has been left on and its already a muddy mix of clay and grass. It's going to be slippery there and in the dark more than a few people have landed on their posterior trying to negotiate that part of the trail.
The first “Grand Entry” is absolutely thrilling. Some 780 “registered” dancers with another hundred “pleasure” dancers. Hometown dancers typically do not contest but turn out to dance with some of their away-from-home competitors or to visit with World Class Indian Dancers from Maine to California to Canada. (Especially from Canada since we are only about an hour sought of the border.) Just before the Grand Entry the MCs run through the list of Drum Groups and they are the cream of the crop. The perennial Mandaree Singers which are almost considered a home town drum given the decades they have been in attendance and the Southern Cree Drum which is a fairly new group but with a repertoire of beautiful songs along with the Rocky Boy Singers, Gray Boys, Dry Creek, Northern Cree and a whole bunch of others I wish I had space to mention. Fantastic music! The “Colors” are brought in by the local Veterans Post usually accompanied by any Vets who may be present and current members of the military, male and female, home on leave for the Pow Wow. Some, dressed in Desert Combat Fatigues may be fresh from the war zone. The war zone is gender neutral. It wasn't long ago that the Color Guard was exclusively male, but with “Desert Storm” we had our first female flag barer fresh from active duty in her Desert Camouflage.
It's hard to put your finger on any one reason why Rocky Boy is one of the “must go to” Pow Wows on the circuit. I think it has to do with hospitality and reliability. You know you're going to be treated well, fed, sheltered and that the local families will send you home with some money or a gift from the “give-away” just for showing up. The Dance and Drum Contest money does attract some but it also may be the family “specials” that can add another $50,000 to the pot and typically is paid on the spot along with a jacket or Pendleton Blanket or Star Quilt. Tiny Tot's are usually paid on the spot too which makes the toy vendors happy. I prefer the Fry bread and Munudo vendors, much to my wife's chagrin.
All too soon it is over and we load up the car and we drive slowly through the disintegrating camp with several sleepy kids in the back and a tired satisfaction bordering on “renewal”. Its the same every time.
Harold Monteau is a Chippewa Cree Attorney and writes from the Coeur d'Alene Reservation in Idaho. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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