Life on the Powwow Highway: A family affair
Patti Jo King
In March 2008, 15-year-old Amanda Joy Ironstar was crowned Princess of the Annual Denver March Powwow. Ironstar, who has dreamed of this honor since she was a small child, works hard, keeps her grades up at school and participates in pow wows and dance exhibitions almost every week. Nevertheless, Amanda didn’t achieve her level of excellence by herself. She and her siblings are inspired and supported in their efforts by their parents and relatives who view pow wow as a family tradition.
Ironstar is a Nakota/Lakota from the Whitebear Community of Oceanman First Nations, Saskatchewan. Her maternal grandparents, Joe and Rose Ewack, began the tradition when their children were small. Amanda’s grandfather Joe was a traditional dancer, and her aunt Lisa Ewack is the former Miss Indian World 1986.
In addition, Amanda’s mother Yvette Ewack-Goodeagle has been dancing since she was 6. “I grew up on the pow wow circuit,” Yvette said. “Pow wow has always been such a big part of my life that it was just natural to raise my own children to dance.”
Amanda and her younger sister Thomasina, 7, have been dancing since they were small, participating first in Tiny Tots competitions. “We encouraged the kids to dance and as they became more involved, they decided for themselves which dance styles made them feel most comfortable,” Yvette said. “Amanda chose Jingle Dress, and Thomasina chose Fancy Shawl.”
Four years ago while at the Red Earth Powwow, Yvette met Thomas Goodeagle, an Osage/Pawnee with two children of his own. The two married, and with their combined family, settled in Anadarko, Okla. Thomas works as a driller, and Yvette works for the Caddo Nation as the Community Services Manager. They also continued the family pow wow tradition. Thomas, a straight dancer, and his children regularly participate in the Osage dances at Fairfax, Okla.
“Living in Oklahoma is a great advantage,” Yvette said. “Year round there is always someplace to dance – birthday dances, fundraisers and other events. We travel to the Denver Powwow every year because it’s a good central location to meet up with family and friends from Canada, and it’s one of the larger events that kick off the pow wow season.”
The Goodeagle’s believe that traditional dancing is an important aspect of Indian culture that must be preserved. “I always used to hear the old people say that pow wows are family events; great places to spend time with your children,” Yvette said. In the past she has taught pow wow dancing, regalia-making and beading to girls at Riverside Indian School and plans to do more teaching in the future.
“In my opinion, dance helps keep our culture alive. It is a part of us – of who we are. We dance until we are old with grey hair, and we must pass this gift of dance down to our children. Pow wow is so much more than competition. It’s not just about money.”
Even so, following the pow wow trail requires funding. Yvette says a modest estimate of the average cost for gas, lodging and meals for a family of four at a weekend pow wow is $500. She is thankful, however, that her family has been blessed, frequently placing in dance competitions. Prize money helps assure that pow wow families can continue to travel and compete on the pow wow circuit.
Regardless of the expense, the Goodeagle’s have many fond memories of pow wow adventures. Thomas still laughs about the time his brother Ronnie was late for Grand Entry and bustled into the arena ahead of him. In his hurry, he stepped on his breach cloth and nearly pulled it off. “He had to hurry and catch it before he bared all,” Thomas mused.
Yvette remembers when a tornado descended on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Powwow. “I was in line waiting for food when the BIA police told everyone to evacuate. The sky was getting blacker and blacker and my frybread was getting soggy from the rain and hail as I rushed back to our van trying not to spill my hot corn soup. We took cover at the casino which has a shelter, but it was packed with gamblers who seemed to care less that a tornado was imminent,” she laughed.
Pow wows are not the only venues for traditional dancing. Dance exhibitions are important examples of Indian culture for non-Indians as well. The Goodeagle family has danced at a variety of events such as basketball games, fairs and community and school programs. They also performed for the Queen of England in Saskatoon.
Amanda recently danced for residents of a Chickasaw nursing home. “My sister and I were struck by the emotional response of those who watched the performance,” Yvette said. “The dances are so beautiful, colorful and uplifting, people are naturally curious and want to know more about Indian culture.”
Amanda’s role as Denver Powwow Princess is an honor that carries a lot of responsibility. The title was bestowed upon her by the pow wow committee because of her many years of participation in the event. As ambassador for the Denver Powwow, she must also be a role model, alcohol and drug free and well-behaved both socially and academically.
“I was happy to be chosen; I practically cried. My friends are mostly into basketball, school and other activities, but I love dancing – it’s my whole life. When I get a really good song, I don’t think about my steps. I just get lost in happiness. It really feels good to make other people happy too.”
Amanda says she plans to continue Jingle Dress dancing and says she would someday like to compete for the title of Miss Indian Nation or Miss Indian World.
Yvette, herself a Jingle Dress dancer, refers to Amanda’s happiness as the “pow wow spirit.”
“During a really good song you can just feel it – like a chill running up your back. It’s the pow wow spirit, and there is nothing else in the world like it.”