Pow Wow Reflections: Coming Down From Grandma’s Lap and Borrowing Moves
Every Thursday night my mom would take me down to dance and drum practice at the Intertribal Friendship House on International Boulevard in Oakland where I would spend the evening sitting on Grandma Waukazoo’s lap, watching the other kids dance. It wasn’t until I was nine, when Grandma Waukazoo’s health declined and she stopped coming on Thursdays, that I came down from my perch and out into the circle.
In 2004 the Medicine Warriors dancers and All Nations singers from Oakland made plans to travel to Washington, D.C. and celebrate the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian with thousands of other indigenous people. Although I had expressed little interest before, I felt very strongly that I should take part, and so my mom spent the summer beading my first outfit.
The outfit she made had appliqué Cree beadwork on black velvet. There was a rumor in the family that my name, “NoiseCat,” which my Dad got from his Kyé7e Alice, was Cree. Through my research, I later learned that it is actually a Secwepemc name from our ancestor, Copper Johnny Newísket, who owned a ranch on land where we fought the Crees long ago, which is probably the source of the mix-up.
Gilbert Blacksmith brought me into the circle, and many people helped me when I was first getting started. My uncle, Koko, made my first roach and fan, and helped my dad put together a bustle. James Bearchild, a local traditional dancer, gave me a stick that I still dance today. I watched Joe Waukazoo and borrowed a few moves. Many offered advice and encouragement, but as I started to travel a bit more I realized that what I had wasn’t quite up to par with what was on the circuit, and that if I really wanted to pow wow, I needed something better.
It just so happened that my dad married Keri Jhane Myers, a pow wow dancer and artist from Oklahoma in 2007. My mom gave my dad our old Volvo, and in exchange Jhane gave me a new outfit and my start on the circuit. That June I traveled to the Red Earth pow wow in Oklahoma City and danced in a black and sky blue outfit with floral and northwest coast designs for the first time. With a few improvements in my outfit and dancing, I took fourth at Red Earth that year, and continued to travel and place throughout my teens.
Inspired by the quality of design and craft, my mom slowly started making me a new fully beaded outfit in 2009. She designed Secwepemc style floral beadwork on alternating red and white background, with a choker, knee bands, moccasins, headband and reversible red and white cuffs. Diane Plumley, who also sewed my second outfit, made me a vest, aprons, side dropsand shirts to dance while my mom started on the beaded vest and side drops. She finished the vest in time for my high school graduation in 2011, and just finished the side drops in time for the powwows this summer. Along the way, she incorporated new design elements representative of my family and people, including horses for my late grandfather, who owned about 100 head, and salmon for our Secwepemc and St’at’imc relatives on the Fraser River. In total the vest and side drops alone took her well over a 1,000 hours.
These are the stories and love that adorn me wherever I go in Indian Country, and I am incredibly fortunate that these are the people and places I come from. The work never ends for the family and community who make the outfits that come dancing in the grand entry. A decade after first picking up a needle and thread, my mom is about to start on her next project. Someday, when they come down from her lap, she will do the same for my children.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, a citizen of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) Nation, is a student at Columbia University in New York City. Read a profile of him here.