Pow Wow Reflections: 'Ride the Bucking Buffalo!'
Those were the words that my dad’s old buddy, Melvin Christopher, left me with when I dropped him off on my way out of Canim Lake, British Columbia, on the road to the Julyamsh Powwow in Postfalls, Idaho. I didn’t know Melvin was my dad’s friend, but when I saw him and another Tsq’escenemc walking down the road, thumbs in the air, I did as I was obligated and gave them a ride.
What does it mean to ride the bucking buffalo? Perhaps it means “Dance hard!” – the universal pow wow idiom and title to one of my favorite Northern Cree CDs. Except “dance hard” is a command – something parents might tell their kids right before contest or the emcee might say during grand entry, whereas “riding the bucking buffalo” sounds like more of a way of life. At any rate, next time I see Melvin I’m going to ask him what the hell “ride the bucking buffalo” means.
After dropping off Melvin and gassing up in town, I went on down the road, stopping in Lytton to pick up my 9-year-old fancy shawl-dancing cousin and her mom, who was my co-pilot for the weekend. On the way to Post Falls, we stopped at four different Wal-Marts within 24 hours, spending last weekend’s winnings to stock up on various pow wow necessities such as duct tape, scissors and water. Wal-Mart pit stops are an age-old pow wow tradition, and although the first three visits were necessary, the fourth was more like the necessary punch line to a bad joke that brought our consumerism full circle.
We pulled into the Greyhound Park and Event Center around 5:30, giving us enough time to get registered, braid our hair and get dressed for a 7 o’clock grand entry that was surprisingly punctual. In the world of big contest pow wows, Indian Time is becoming more and more a thing of the past. I guess even the time-honored traditions can change. There was a horse parade before each session featuring riders and horses in traditional regalia, which I missed because I was at the car getting ready.
During drum roll call, I listened intently to see what drum groups I was going to get to jam out to over the weekend. The drum contest was stacked with Northern Cree, Stoney Park and many other top-notch drum groups. It was a pow wow that would, as the infamous pow wow emcee Ruben Little Head says, “Make me like it!”
I danced hard in grand entry, and that night there was a round of regular contest and a jingle special that got everyone right into the pow wow swing.
With Ruben Little Head co-emceeing, there were the usual drum roll call antics; and on Sunday each drum group had to do their best rendition of a Garth Brooks tune. Mikey Sioux, who sang with Omaha Lodge, stole the show and the microphone for a two-minute rendition of “The Dance,” even walking out into the arbor to serenade the audience.
Throughout the weekend there were also special contests in women’s short fringe, men’s war bonnet and men’s horsetail that showcased unique outfits and dance styles not recognized at every pow wow. The men’s horsetail dance was particularly unusual as it is just being brought back into the pow wow circle in the Northwest. Colby White bucked his way right into first place.
I competed in the junior men’s traditional category, dancing to five contest songs over the weekend including foot slides by Iron Boy and Northern Cree and a singer’s choice sneak-up in Sunday’s finals. I must’ve done something right, placing fifth in a tight contest and taking home a bit of money to get me to the next one in Kamloops, British Columbia earlier this month.
Riding the bucking buffalo is a way of life to many of us throughout Indian Country. We travel throughout the United States and Canada to sing and dance, to meet new people and see old friends, to love and break-up. But from pow wow hangover to heartbreak to “Hoka!” there is always another. See you down the road.
Julian Brave NoiseCat is a student at Columbia University in New York City. Read a profile of him here.