On a long drive across the plains, a woman who was reminiscing said, “This one’s for you, dad.” Alone in the car, she sang a solo in the high register of those who sing Northern-style as they stand at the drum and raise their voices to accompany the male singers.
Her solitary song that day was for her father, said Candace LeBeau, Miniconjou Lakota, her clear, vibrant voice belying his admonition that she didn’t know how to sing because she couldn’t read music.
LeBeau said her confidence was restored when she heard an operatic tenor who, sightless, sang beautifully and she realized he couldn’t read music, either.
So she began singing as one of the Wicaglata, a Lakota word that denotes women singing, often “behind the drum,” “just women singing,” “we echo the men,” or, in yet another translation, “women backup singers.”
For Chris Eagle Hawk, who was an emcee at last year’s Denver March Pow Wow, it’s a little different: To him, it’s “women singing in balance and harmony with the men at the drum.” To him, “behind” and “backup” are a legacy of the European belief that women are second-class citizens, a concept “that some Native people have bought into,” he said.
Welcome to the world of the Wicaglata in all its complexity, history and customs.
What seems on the surface to be a familiar sight at pow wows—women standing and singing around the big drum where men are drumming and singing-- is not so straightforward and it means different things to different people.
The history of the Wicaglata extends far back in time, present-day singers said. LeBeau’s niece, Gabrielle Knife-Pederson, Miniconjou Lakota, shared her family’s version of how the singing began:
“A young man was in mourning, or he had troubles, and he went away to reflect or think about the hard times. Some say he was giving up on life. He started singing alone, and then he heard a high-pitched voice singing with him. If he stopped, it stopped. He looked around and he saw a doe, so he went back and told the people about it. This is one version.”
Today, the singing experience is sometimes described as including four circles that radiate outward—first is the drum, then the singers who are also drumming, then the women--the Wicaglata--and finally the people.
Regardless of the way they’re regarded, women express themselves in song in many ways, whether it’s competitive or more contemplative.
Some women sing in contests—as in the Wicaglaca competition at Denver March Pow Wow—but LeBeau doesn’t, she said, because she only sings “for what it does for my spirit.” Cheryl Cozad, Kiowa, who sings with Waterbird, a Southern-style drum, explained that “the purpose for my singing is that I have a son in the military and I use my singing as a way of praying for him and all the military and veterans—for my father, because he’s a veteran.”
Although many singers in the Plains area sing Northern-style, a number of noted Wicaglaca are from Oklahoma and other midwestern or southern states and they generally sing in a lower register. The Wicaglata overall are contestants in a number of pow wows besides Denver March, ranging from the Tusweca Tiospaye pow wow near Pine Ridge, S.D. and the Oceti Sakowin and Black Hills Powwows in Rapid City, S.D. to pow wows in Winnepeg, Manitoba and the Enoch Cree Nation, Alberta, Canada. The women singers sometimes are listed in drum group membership lists when songs are recorded on CDs for commercial sales.
Knife-Pederson, who is also a Jingle Dress dancer, sings in competition, including the contest for Wicaglata at the Denver March, as it’s often called. The Wicaglata are valuable, she said, because “Singers will get tired, and it’s always helpful when women backup singers come and help those at the drum with the singing.”
Gracie Red Shirt Tyon, Oglala Lakota, has had yet another experience, as she and her mother, Margaret Tyon, have for many years been among the first to enter the dance circle at Denver March. They accompany Howard Bad Hand, Sicangu Lakota, whose drum, Heart Beat, plays the pow wow’s opening song. The drum was named by Margaret Tyon at Bad Hand’s request, he daughter said. For many years, the Wicaglata contest was held in honor of the older Tyon, an event now sponsored by the Denver March Pow Wow Committee.
The way singing entered women’s lives often involved learning early on from older women relatives and others. As Knife-Pederson, who began singing at age 8 or 9, said, “It was something women just did” as she described singing with elders.
Cozad has been singing since she was 12. LeBeau began singing early songs with older relatives and after some time with the late Nellie Two Bulls “back in the day.” Tyon said, laughing, that she was intimidated by the strength of her mother’s and grandmother’s voices, but later began singing herself and now “it comes from deep within.”
Many women continue to sing with their relatives, while others sing with different drum groups. In some tribal nations, to be among women singing at the drum was a distinct honor, and not one in which everyone could participate.
Grace Gillette, Arikara, executive director of Denver March Pow Wow, said that customarily among members of her tribe, “not just anyone could sing at the drum.” Her father was the hereditary Tail Feather Carrier of the Dead Grass Society and, as a result, women of the family could sing at the drum. She herself has tried to sing, she said, “but I just couldn’t get the hang of it.”
The songs themselves and the drum groups that sing them are the bedrock of the Wicaglata experience and when the Wicaglata sing it may be for a specific reason.
For LeBeau, it is important to “keep the old songs alive.” She said many of those songs are veterans’ songs, some from the early 1900s, and drum groups from the Porcupine, S.D. area “know songs that have been passed down.”
Or they may sing for the sheer enjoyment of stirring melodies. The Northern Cree Nation “has the most beautiful songs you’ve ever heard,” she said, and, overall, “new songs are constantly being written for the various dance categories.”
Knife-Pederson said, “When you attend a pow wow, you can sing pretty much anything,” and Cozad said she and the other women at the drum sing flag songs, victory songs, veterans’ songs, and others.
Eagle Hawk, a cultural consultant, said many of the old songs were composed by women, but today “some men in drum groups create songs that are very complicated to keep women from singing them.” He said he tells his sons to create songs that would “bring women back to the drum.” Now members of the third generation of his family are with the Crazy Horse Singers drum group he and other initiated.
“Now a lot of our singers have no foundation,” he said. “Just pow wow and contest songs, and too often it’s all about winning and all about money.” Many drum groups do not have an older person to advise them, he added.
Change appears in other ways, even in the pattern of mostly older women singing, teaching the younger ones.
“Now there are so many young women who are singing,” Gracie Tyon said. “When I started, there were just a few, mostly older, women.”
“I think they are feeling empowered in finding their identities and their culture,” she said.
Another sign of the times: Powwows.com asked whether there was interest in an online Wicaglata forum and received a number of responses ranging from those supportive of present practices to those who criticized behavior that is often related to money. More than half of respondents thought an online forum would be a good idea.
Some examples of responses to the proposal for an online forum for Wicaglata issues:
“I think that a Wicaglata forum will help bring attention to this very important aspect of our powwows.” “I came across ladies acting like dudes and standing there with their hand out after singing with us for the weekend and wanting their cut.” ”It’s sad that so many young women are going to be learning from this greedy new attitude. I hope that some elders speak up, and soon, about this and explain their own traditional reasons and way for the women to sing, and how they conduct themselves.” “We need to look at ourselves, too. Ask ourselves this, will we dance/sing at a small community powwow that’s got some real good traditions, but very little cash…like VERY little! Just a thought.”
The world of the Wicaglata may change, but its members will grapple with these and other issues even as their voices are raised in a traditional, unique role. As long as there are women singing at the drum in a circle around the men, “It gives us a boost—it makes it a lot easier to sing,” Eagle Hawk says.