Every year in July, the Nez Perce Homeland becomes a place of reunion for descendants of the original inhabitants of Wal’waama, also known as Wallowa Country. At Tamkaliks, participants enjoy three days of dancing and drumming, culminating in a walasit service and Friendship feast when descendants, locals, and visitors attend together.
The following weekend, the Nez Perce gather in Joseph to share once again their culture and traditions with locals and visitors alike during Chief Joseph Days at the Encampment Pavilion east of the rodeo arena with Traditional Indian Dance Contests.
Each dance session begins with a Grand Entry, a procession of dancers. The Flag Bearers lead the procession carrying the Eagle Staff, American Flag, The Canadian Flag, and frequently, the MIA-POW Flag. Being a Flag Bearer is an honor usually given to a veteran, a respected traditional dancer, or a traditional elder. Everyone is asked to stand during the Grand Entry and men should remove their head coverings unless it has an eagle feather. After all the dancers are in the Arbor, a flag song is sung to honor the Eagle Staff and flags. Then a respected person, usually an elder, offers a prayer. This is followed by a victory song during which the Eagle Staff and flags are placed in their stands.
While the dancers are competing with one another during the dance contests, they are also in contest with the drummers and singers.
Judges look for dancers to reflect their own personal style as well as their ability to carry on traditions that go with specific songs or dances. The dancers will be evaluated for footwork, rhythm, agility, and demeanor. Dancers follow directions from the Whipman & Whipwoman.
There are many different dance categories each with its individual meaning and interpretation.
Following is an abridged description of various Native dances that are demonstrated during the festivities.
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- Eagle Feather Pick Up – Eagles and eagle feathers are revered by many tribes of this continent because of the bird’s characteristics, abilities, and closeness to the Creator. The feather symbolizes a fallen warrior.
- The Circle Dance – A dance of friendship where everyone can join in. The circle of dancers moves to the left in the clockwise direction and three circle dance songs will be sung in succession.
- Men & Boys Traditional – Dancers typically wear a breechcloth, moccasins, feather bustle, a porcupine and deer hair roach with a spreader in the middle made of bone, rawhide or leather in which roach feathers are mounted.
- Men’s Fast & Fancy – Extremely colorful beadwork, elaborate feather bustles, ribbons, scarves, horsehair tips, angora bands, sheep bells, a roach headdress and dance sticks all punctuate the most spectacular display of dance stunts and movements in this very fast-paced contest that began in the 1950s.
- Women & Girls Traditional – Dances feature Plateau Women’s dresses that may be made of buckskin, wool, velvet, or dresses are adorned with dentalia, cowry, or abalone shells, elk teeth, ribbon, seed and bugle beads as well as fringe on the sleeves and hem. Handwoven hats, headbands or beaded hair ornaments with feathers may be worn. In this category, two songs are typically sung in contests so that the females demonstrate both a slow and graceful straight style war dance and a circle dance.
- Women’s Jingle Dress – In 1920, after a medicine man’s granddaughter became ill, his spirit guides told him in a dream to make her a dress that would please the ear and have her dance in it to heal her. The dress is decorated with rolled up snuff can lids or baking powder lids hanging from a ribbon. There are two styles of jingle dance – a slide step and straight.
- Women & Girls Traditional – In this category, two songs are typically sung in contests so that the females demonstrate both a slow and graceful straight style war dance and a circle dance.
Grass Dance – Wearing lots of fringe (representing tall blades of prairie grass), a porcupine and deer hair roach and no bustle, this dance was popularized by Northern Plains peoples where tall prairie grasses needed to be flattened for encampments or gatherings. Moves show how they would gracefully bend, fold, and weave greases to an even surface, and dancers’ ribbons and yarn sway as grasses would.
Originally published in the 74th Chief Joseph Days Rodeo Program, designed by Angelika Ursula Dietrich – WildHorses.media.
For more information on Nez Perce culture and tradition and how to get involved please visit the Nez Perce website at www.wallowanezperce.org.
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