- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2006

DENVER — Standing in a circle, the Heart Beat singers struck a drum in unison. With hundreds of Indians in colorful tribal dress ready tomarchinto the Denver March Powwow behind them, the bespectacled Howard Bad Hand began to sing.

“White mountain people,” he sang in the Lakota language, in a melody that rose and fell in a pattern mirroring the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. “This celebration you have is a living hoop.”

Powwows have kept American Indian customs and songs alive for centuries, and there are dozens every year across the country, from places such as Cornish, Maine, and Santee, Neb., to big cities such as Denver and Indianapolis. Yet powwows have changed with the times, too, adapting to technology, migration and government policies that could have stomped out tradition.

Voices that once carried through the air on their own can now rely on microphones. Although some powwows are still held outdoors on sacred land — with shawls, blankets, horses, coffee and other non-cash items given as prizes — some of the largest events, such as the Gathering of Nations Powwow in New Mexico, are held inside.

“To me, a tradition doesn’t mean anything unless it keeps up with the times,” said Bad Hand, one of the original chairmen of the popular Denver powwow. “Traditions are not laws. They’re just agreements that people agree to do certain things at certain times with each other to keep order, harmony.

“A lot of people trying to get back into tradition look at them as laws, and that’s unfortunate. Traditions have to bend and flex, and they have to meet the needs of the people in the current times.”

In a song, the leader usually starts alone on a very high note. The tones descend on the first phrase or two. Then a chorus of men and women echoes the same phrase before everyone sings together. The melody usually descends very low, then goes up right after a solo by the leader and repeats.

Songs have been written to honor veterans or to honor individuals. Today, there is even a “happy birthday” song that includes the phrase in English.

“It’s good that we’re evolving and extending it and creating new things,” said 26-year-old Jimmy Peters, part of the Black Horse Singers drum group from greater Denver. “At the same time, we have to remember the special songs, memorial songs, honor songs, veterans songs.”

Many powwow songs have been passed from generation to generation, but new songs are written all the time. Ceremonial songs generally are not recorded and are not sung in public or even written down.

“The United States government once forbade the American Indian to sing Indian songs,” said Louis Ballard, a composer and educator who cites a Cherokee-Quapaw, French and Scottish heritage.

“In the early part of the 20th century, there was a genocide policy by the federal government against Indian people. In the schools, the children were forbidden to speak their language, they were forbidden to sing their songs,” he said.

Mr. Ballard calls some of the powwow music “survival songs.”

“That’s what those powwow songs are, because they survived everything,” he said. “They survived prejudice, survived genocide and survived exploitation.”

Scores of modern powwows are intertribal. U.S. relocation policies sent Indians to urban centers for education and jobs, exposing tribes to other traditions, said Jerry Bread, a professor of Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma. Denver, miles from any reservation, was one of the relocation centers and has a substantial urban Indian population.

Charlotte Heth, a former professor of ethnomusicology at University of California at Los Angeles and a former assistant director for public programs at the National Museum of the American Indian, said powwows provide a chance for Indians not familiar with their heritage to participate in the culture.

An example, she said, are the Cherokee. Powwows originally were not part of the Cherokee culture, but in the past 75 years or so, Cherokees have adopted them, she said.

“It’s a way of including people who might be left out otherwise,” she said.

This year, the Denver March Powwow honored storyteller Phillip Whiteman Jr. with a special “old style” grass dance contest.

The dancers honored ancestors with their performance, yet there was a contemporary element because the dancers were competing.

“It’s a tradition and culture that’s alive,” said Mr. Whiteman, a Northern Cheyenne Indian. “Everything’s a circle, everything comes back again.”

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