Powwows — get-togethers sponsored by Native Americans for dancing, singing, drumming and conversation — are one way elders instill enthusiasm and reverence for traditional culture in the younger generation.
Many powwows are hosted in Norman each year, and generally anyone, regardless of tribe or even no American Native affiliation, are welcome to attend.
Dancing forms include gourd, grass, war and others. Fancy dancing is a style that requires athletic stamina and split-second dancer response to rapid drumming variations designed to deceive the dancer into missteps.
Powwow dance competitions for cash prizes are common but not necessarily a given.
“I had a line of fancy dancers before me,” Dijay Yarholar said. “My dad and all my uncles were fancy dancers. Even my aunt, Beverly Jaquez, was one of the first lady fancy dancers.”
Dijay Yarholar is a 30-something Cheyenne-Arapaho who spends many weekends with wife, Erin, and their young daughters at powwows near and far.
“You can pretty much find a powwow every single weekend in Oklahoma,” he said. “Red Earth is not the only one.”
Yarholar has been dancing since he was 6, with some breaks during the years because of youth sports activities. He still plays team basketball with other guys his age and finds the physical conditioning essential to being a successful dancer.
“It takes a lot of energy to do some of these dances,” he said. “They’re very up-tempo and the drummers can be tricky.”
In Yarholar’s experience, the outfits worn for dancing have changed more than any other powwow aspect.
“When I first started, they weren’t as bright and shiny as today,” he said.
Neon-colored beadwork is common, and the intent is to stand out and demand attention from judges.
“I’m getting a new outfit that will be strictly traditional Cheyenne-Arapaho designs,” Yarholar said. “Every tribe has their own style and design in the beadwork.”
Dancing and seeing friends he wouldn’t see anywhere else except at powwows is the main attraction.
“We hang out and chit-chat,” Yarholar said. “It’s better than staying home watching TV, and if we don’t go to a powwow, we end up wishing we had.”
These days, social media is instrumental in promoting powwows in advance and sharing photos of the festivities during and after the fact.
Jeri Redcorn is a longtime Norman resident, ceramic artist and cultural doyenne of the Caddo Nation. Her first powwow experiences began when she was a small child in 1950 in Colony.
“It was mostly Cheyenne-Arapaho because of the nearby reserve, and I think some Kiowa came over,” she said. “There were a lot of family songs, and head dancers were chosen.”
Those small gatherings were few and far between.
“So much has changed from the dances when I was a child, and there were maybe 20 adults and 30 of us kids,” Redcorn said. “My uncle would fire up the big, black stove in the Cheyenne community center. We’d have two singers, and everyone there (were) people I knew. It was very comforting knowing I belonged.”
Larger and more organized powwows followed that included enormous campsites, donated beef and prize money.
One constant is lively conversation and family.
“You see people that you haven’t seen for awhile,” Redcorn said. “It’s the place to meet life-long friends and make new ones.”
In addition to singing, dancing and drumming, display and sale of art and handicrafts are at most powwows. You’ll never go hungry because fry bread, Indian tacos, corn soup, rice and raisins, hominy, jerky and game stews are typical fare.
After high school, Redcorn aggressively pursued education out of state and, by the 1980s, was armed with a graduate degree from Penn State. Her passion for preserving and further developing American Native traditions and culture always burned bright.
Redcorn became executive director of the first Red Earth American Indian Cultural Festival in 1987.
“The Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce’s head of marketing said they wanted to support us, but they’d never seen a powwow,” she said with a chuckle. “They didn’t really know what to expect because no floats were being built for the parade.”
Redcorn pulled together a mini-powwow at the fairgrounds to educate the chamber. Red Earth became a mega powwow, attracting tribal members from across North America and visitors from around the globe.
“Things have changed a lot since those first ones I went to as a little girl,” Redcorn said. “Now one of my favorites is the OU powwow sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society because I get to see people I knew when I was young.”