The Prairie Chicken Dance at the Wellpinit Pow Wow

The Prairie Chicken Dance at the Wellpinit Pow Wow

Jack McNeel

It’s pow wow time every Labor Day weekend at Wellpinit on the Spokane reservation. This year is the 97th annual Wellpinit Labor Day pow wow.  Wellpinit is roughly 50 miles northwest of Spokane, and serves as the tribe's headquarters, a mixture of farmland, timberland, and wheat fields.

For the past 17 years the pow wow has hosted a prairie chicken dance special, now one of the largest, if not the largest, prairie chicken dance contest in the northwest. This special pow wow dance has brought people from far and wide to Wellpinit's annual even, which has been hosted by noted Spokane artist, George Flett, each of the dance's 17-years. “My grandson was just born and I dedicated this first prairie chicken dance to him,” Flett says.

The dance itself is done much like the movements of an actual male prairie chicken when he's trying to attract a female. The dancers try to copy the movements of these lively birds who are famous for their mating ritual, which is called ‘booming.’  Dancers’ styles vary but they tend to stand straight, chests and elbows out and shoulders back in sort of a strutting posture. But that’s just one aspect of the bird’s dance. When they do the shake, they stoop over with arms out and take quick little steps.

It’s a fun dance to watch and if you’ve seen the birds on their lek, or mating area, you’ll quickly see the similarities. The regalia worn is also unique. The small round bustle and the fanned out tail copy the look of the chicken’s breast and its fanned out tail when the bird does its mating ritual. Skin-tight clothing is typically worn with bells around the ankles and sometimes up the legs.

Flett also hosts an annual Indian art auction the first evening of the pow wow. Many of his own art pieces were auctioned along with items provided by others. He’s a regular artist at the Santa Fe Market each summer where buyers spend three or four thousand dollars for his larger paintings. He works in many different media but is now probably best known for his ledger art that combines colored pencil and acrylic.  Some of the proceeds from the Wellpinit auction are used to provide prize money for the prairie chicken dance winners. 

“We always make sure the winner will get at least $2, 000,” he said. “Then it drops down to $500, $300 and $200, but we also give custom jackets and beaded items. We try to make it a little different than anybody else. We invite family and friends. The very first drum song welcomes all the prairie chicken dancers.”

David Browneagle again served as Master of Ceremonies. Browneagle is Spokane/Ho Chunk but grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. He remembers the annual trips to the Wellpinit Labor Day pow wow when he was a child. “We put up my grandmother’s camp and that was a family social function. Today the same thing pretty much happens. I believe it’s brought a lot of people together as a family.”

Pat Moses, tribal elder, recalled the old days, when things were less competitive on the dance circuit. “Everyone had their own designated campground.” It’s changed now although some families still use certain areas. “Pauline Flett still has hers. We have ours to some degree,” he said. “Dancing was for fun, for pleasure, but nowadays there’s competition prize money involved so it’s changed to be more commercialized.”

Browneagle has been on the Wellpinit pow wow committee since 1986. Stickgame competition has always been a major event here but there’s never been a tournament. “I remember one request to have a stickgame tournament but it was denied big time,” he said. “You play stickgame and you have fun. It’s a social event. There’s a lot of teasing, a lot of intensity, but when it’s done and over there’s a lot of friendship and good feelings. And the songs! It’s keeping the songs alive and having the respect of people who are singing.”

This year was no different as several hundred sat beneath the roof in the stickgame area and the sound of the drums and singing spilled out over the pow wow grounds.

Yet it’s the prairie chicken dance competition which sets this pow wow apart from most. Dancers from numerous tribes signed up for the prairie chicken competition, part of the 300 plus dancers that registered in total. They all danced the first night. Semi-finals and finals, featuring the top 10 as determined by the judges, danced again on the second day. Sugarbear Firststrike, Blackfeet, took first place for the second year in a row. 

Pat Moses credits none other then George Flett for bringing the Prairie Chicken Dance back. “It kind of died out. George Flett began to sponsor it in the early 1990s. From then on it became the main attraction. Now (nearly) every tribe has a prairie chicken contest.”

A new event was added last year and repeated this year, owing to the popularity of the pow wow’s signature dance. Now, the first song on the final day of the Wellpinit Pow Wow is the prairie chicken fight. A drawing was held to match up the top ten dancers into five pairs of dancers. Then it’s face to face, dancing to the beat as two prairie chickens might. Like the birds, the dancers make little charges towards each other, quickly stomping their feet, and sometimes jumping in the air, the idea being to attract the females. Winners this year were Louie Paul (Blackfeet) and Jody Littlechild (Cree). 

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