Wacipi Powwow drums ‘heartbeat of the Nation’
51st annual powwow at UND is an explosion of sound, culture and color
Michael Dunkley tried his best to stand perfectly still Friday while his wife, Melinda Dunkley, delicately dabbed her fingertip onto the end of a Chapstick-like tube before swirling the sticky white paint across his forehead.
“It has to be perfect,” Melinda said with a chuckle.
Next, Melinda pulled out a second tube of black paint and carefully added the vertical stripes on top.
“This is my trademark paint,” explained Michael, still careful to keep his eyes forward and head straight. “It was actually given to me by a Nakota dancer. It was a gift.”
The pair had traveled all the way from their home in northern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to attend the 51st annual Time Out Wacipi Powwow on Friday and Saturday. They’d been coming to the yearly celebration on the UND campus for decades, and last week’s spring snow squall wasn’t about to stop them.
“If they’re going to powwow, they’re going to be here,” Melinda said of the large crowd that already had gathered inside the Hyslop Sports Center hours before the 7 p.m. Grand Entry would open the two-day free event.
“We’ve traveled through blizzards before,” she said. “We had to kind of watch the weather last night, but today the roads were fine.”
So once again, the former champion dancer would be able to celebrate in the men’s traditional dance category. Prize or not, it all would be worth it.
“The drums keep bringing me back,” Michael said. “It’s the heartbeat of the Nation. And we come to see the family and friends — we’re all one big family.”
Celebration in all sizes
Steps away, another family was hustling to get dressed in time for the Grand Entry. Destiny Beautiful Bald Eagle — the powwow’s head woman dancer — and husband Tim Peet were taking turns passing 1½-year-old Scarlet and 3½-year-old Alan back and forth as they quickly added the finishing touches to the children’s regalia.
For Scarlet, that was a pink shirt with a matching beaded headband and necklace, a miniature concho belt and a silk-ribbon skirt in all colors of the rainbow.
Alan, who was smiling ear to ear and raring to go, was dressed in a bright-ribbon vest with a decorative apron trailing with more ribbons down to the tops of his tiny red-and-blue moccasins. His regalia was complete with a straw hat and necklace made of imitation elk teeth.
“We’re super excited to be here,” said Beautiful Bald Eagle, herself in a bright-green jingle dress. “I’m in the Air Force, so we don’t get to frequent powwows much.”
Originally from Dupree, S.D., Beautiful Bald Eagle said she’s now stationed at Grand Forks Air Force Base, but she’s been away at basic training and technical school for the better part of the past year. Peet works at the Traill County Sheriff’s Office.
“I do diversity inclusion with other airmen at Grand Forks Air Force Base,” Beautiful Bald Eagle said. “The one thing we noticed that wasn’t as recognized there was the Native American culture, even though it’s so prominent.
“So us being from South Dakota and our culture being so beautiful, this is something I just have to share. (On the airbase) not many people get out, so we did a basewide education on powwow etiquette. We had a lunch and learn and fed everyone Indian tacos just to get the airmen out here and in the Grand Forks community as well.”
She was looking forward to all the dancing, music and seeing her whole squadron celebrate at the powwow.
“It’s been so long since we’ve been home and around everyone,” she said. “I love being immersed in the culture again. I’m so excited to hear everyone’s laughs and the stories.”
More stories to tell
And there certainly would be plenty of new stories to add to the old. Keith Malaterre, a longtime powwow organizer and director of UND’s Indigenous Student Center, said as many as 5,000 to 10,000 people usually attend the annual Wacipi.
Even with the spring storm just getting over itself, Malaterre said he never worried that the powwow would be a bust.
“One thing that’s special about our powwow is it’s always one of the first in the spring for the region,” he said. “The dancers and the drummers aren’t able to do this all winter long, so they’re always excited to come to our powwow.
“And another reason we never really have to worry is because we have a lot of faithful dancers, drummers and singers who come to our powwow year after year.”
Many of those return visitors come from tribes based not only in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, but also from Montana and Canada — not to mention all sorts of other states.
“A powwow is a celebration, and I always like to stress how it’s not only for Native Americans. It’s open to everyone,” he added. “It’s just a way for our people to carry on a tradition as well as practice our culture and traditional ways.
“That’s what I like about it. Powwow time always makes me feel really proud of who I am. I’m proud of who I am all the time. But at powwow time, seeing and feeling the energy in there — hearing the beat of the drums — it just really is amazing and moving.”
First-timers and long-timers
He’ll get no argument there from UND Provost Eric Link.
Link shared that this year’s Time Out Wacipi was his very first powwow, and “it was absolutely amazing.”
He and wife Laura Link, chair of Education & Human Development and assistant professor of Teaching & Leadership, were among the dignitaries leading the Grand Entry.
“This was spectacular to see,” Provost Link said. “All of the folks celebrating here is a sight to behold. The music is dynamic. The spirit is fantastic. We’re really proud of this event.”
As the endless line of dancers snaked around the edge of the arena, the announcer summoned more to the floor.
“C’mon now, you know how to line up. This isn’t your first powwow,” he said. “You’re in for an awesome treat here tonight.”
As the host drum group, Battle River, started beating the drum and singing, the arena quickly came alive with a concert of sound and bright colors as the dancers circled and then filled the arena as their thousands of regalia bells and jingles kept the beat.
“It’s a good, very good community powwow,” said John Conklin, who had come with his wife, Phaline, from Aberdeen, S.D., along with son Layton Thacker and daughter Hattie Conklin. “We call them powwows back home, but they call them wacipis around here. Basically, it’s the same thing. There’s a dance, and the people get the good feeling and the good spirit — all the good stuff. The only place you can get it is right here.”
Even if you weren’t dancing, there was plenty to push your senses into overdrive. Guests feasted on fresh lemonade, frybread tacos and chili, while vendors sold handmade beaded purses, earrings, keychains and plush blankets in velvet-soft fleece. There also were hand-painted drums made from stretched animal skins, as well as feathered dream catchers, strips of mink to decorate your braids, and giant, puffy mittens made from fox fur.
The powwow continued with a second day of celebration and two more Grand Entries on Saturday, plus a free dinner that featured buffalo stew, bannock (a flat bread) and a sweet berry syrup called wojapi.