The rhythmic music, the pounding of the drums, the jingle of the small bells that adorned the dresses of many of the female dancers gave life to the Vermillion High School gymnasium last Saturday and Sunday.
It is, as an elder best described it, the heartbeat of an experience that represents the worldly existence of members of several tribes of Native Americans who participated in the 38th annual USD Wacipi, held March 27-28 at the high school.
Gabrielle Knife, 22, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, couldn't stay still for long after arriving at the gym Sunday afternoon. She grabbed her suitcase, went to the women's locker room, and soon re-emerged, dressed in her finest dance regalia.
"I've been dancing for all of my life, and I've been singing for about five or six years," she said.
The sights and sounds of hundreds of dancers beckoned her shortly after she arrived at the gym.
"When I don't dance at a powwow, I get really lonesome for that – that feeling of dancing," Gabrielle said. "It's just too much to handle not to dance, because I love it so much. It's just a big part of my life and who I am … who I've become to be."
She watched the dancers from the hallway outside the gym, wearing a beautiful long, multi-colored dress, and headgear that featured two eagle feathers.
"I'm a contemporary dancer, I dance the jingle-dress style, and I just make what I feel is beautiful," Gabrielle said. "I've always wanted to go into fashion and design, and I love being creative with material and fabric and beads. There's really not much symbolic about what I wear; it's just the fact that I love to dance, I dance what I feel, and I wear what comes to me in making my outfits."
Last weekend's powwow, or Wacipi, was sponsored by the Tiospaye U. organization made up of students at the University of South Dakota. The mission of Tiospaye U. is to create a Tiospaye, which means extended family, by encouraging students to get involved in school and community activities, and also support academic pursuits. The group works to promote a better understanding of the Native American people, culture and issues that are important to the university and surrounding communities.
"The turnout has been really good," said Wyatt Pickner, Tiospaye U. president, Sunday afternoon as he took a quick break from offering water to all of the participants at the Wacipi. "We have 200 to 300 dancers, which is right around what we were expecting. I know we reached an overall attendance during the weekend of approximately 1,000 people.
Sunday morning's activities included the crowning of princesses – specifically, a Little Miss Tiospaye, a Junior Miss Tiospaye, and a Miss Tiospaye.
"We had quite a few contestants, and everything about this Wacipi has been going extremely well," he said. "I've been really happy with the turnout, and I know that the participants in the princess contest were very pleased with the turnout and the competition itself.
"The dancers who have been participating have told us that this (Wacipi) is a lot better than last year," Wyatt said. "It's definitely bigger, and we've seen an increase in the number of drums. We have 15 drums now (Sunday afternoon) up from eight yesterday, so everything is going very well."
He said his classmates at USD who are involved with Tiospaye U. have found the weekend's experience to be uplifting.
"It's really exciting to know that all of this is paying off," Wyatt said. "There's so much that we put into this, and it's totally worth it."
The Wacipi was open to anyone who wished to attend. Those not familiar with the customs of a powwow soon noticed different styles of dance taking place on the gymnasium floor. The men's traditional dance symbolizes a battle or the story of a hunt. The men's grass dance is said to have come from the past, when dancers were sent in first to stomp down long grass to make a clearing for the other dancers during a powwow.
Men's fancy dancing became a traditional part of Wacipis in the late 1900s. This style is preferred by boys and young men, who wear brilliantly-colored bustles and dance regalia.
The women's traditional dance is simple in appearance, but plays a very important symbolic role. The dancers move their feet to the beat of the drum to represent the heartbeat of mother earth, to heal the world.
Many of the women and young girls wore jingle dresses. The small jingles that adorn their clothing, made of twisted tin, represent waves of water and thunder as they performed what is known as a healing dance.
It was impossible to not notice the female dancers who performed in the style commonly referred to as fancy. These dancers wore elaborately beaded dance regalia, covered by long, decorated, fringed shawls. These Wacipi participants made efforts to resemble beautiful butterflies, spreading out their shawl-covered arms as they spun in tiny circles on the gym floor.
Jerome Kills Small, who is from Porcupine, located in the Pine Ridge Reservation, paused for a moment from his duties as a drummer at the Wacipi. He now lives in Vermillion, and teaches Lakota language, Native American oratory and Sioux tribal history at USD.
Jerome's long graying hair indicates that he has seen and participated in many Wacipis during his long life. "On a scale of one to 10, I would have to say that this event is close to a 10," he said Sunday afternoon. We have many different tribes here, and it's always attracted our neighboring tribes – Omaha Winnebago, Dakota, Lakota – so they are pretty well represented here."
A strengthening of the relationship among members of different tribes, through such activities as intertribal dancing, is one of the goals of Tiospaye U.
He watched as a group of youngsters, approximately 5- to 6-years old, danced by to the beat of a drum and the chant of singers.
"See those little kids? That's how old I was when I started going to powwows," Jerome, an Oglala Lakota, said. Many of the members of several other tribes, who brought new life the VHS gym as they expressed themselves through singing and dancing, have become close friends.
"I've seen these people since I was a young boy on the powwow circuit, so we see each other at different powwows," Jerome said. "We're like a big family of different tribes."
"I have a friend who traveled all the way from Eagle Butte to be here," Jerome said. "Right after his little boy was born, when he was only two days old, they brought that little baby here for his first powwow. They are here today because it is his birthday.
"This is where he celebrates his birthday, at the end of March, because this is where he heard his first heartbeat," he said. "Every year, they come here to request a birthday song for him. This is where he heard the first bells, and the first drumbeats aside from his mothering carrying the child to powwows when she was still with child.
"He came here to see who it was that he was hearing. It is a continuation of life."