The Kickingwoman family, from the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, spent the months leading up to powwow season preparing for a summer on the road, attending a different powwow each weekend.
“We don’t work in the summer: This is what we do, this is how we make money,” said George Kickingwoman, a Blackfeet singer in the drum group Black Lodge. The Kickingwoman children compete in the dances while their father sings. In addition to the dance competitions, powwows host singing contests for drum groups. All categories have prizes that often include cash as well as blankets and beadwork.
A young chicken dancer, Thomas Addison, 14, explained that when he dances, the world falls away. For him, it’s about more than winning the competitions (although he does love to win). “It’s about dancing for the people who can’t,” he said.
For Rachel Arlee Bowers, 80, an elder whose family the town is named after, seeing the arena full of dancers was healing. “Dancing is prayer,” Ms. Arlee Bowers said. “We pray and dance for the people who can’t be there. Those that are sick and those that want to dance but can’t. People like me.”
Sitting in a wheelchair in her traditional buckskin dress with her small Chihuahua, Tiny, on her lap, Ms. Arlee Bowers recalled when Native Americans were not allowed to practice their religion and were persecuted for conducting tribal ceremonies. It was not until 1978, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, that Native Americans were allowed to exercise their right to traditional ceremonies and celebrations.
Given that legacy, passing down pieces of regalia from generation to generation means much more to Ansen Eagletail, a 14-year-old chicken dancer who wore a headpiece called a roach that once belonged to his grandfather. It’s one of the oldest pieces in his family, and its history makes it Ansen’s favorite. His family, of the Tsuutʼina Nation from Alberta, Canada, spends their summers on the powwow trail. The Arlee powwow was the fourth of 13 powwows the family planned to attend this summer. Mr. Eagletail’s father is an M.C., and he and his older brother both dance competitively.