The weather hovered slightly above zero and snow began falling before the
final dances and judging were completed this January day at the Spokane
tribe's winter pow wow in Wellpinit, Wash. Spokane tribal members and
others from tribes throughout the region gathered together at the Alex
Sherwood Center in Wellpinit for the 123rd anniversary celebration of the
reservation which was established in 1881. A War Dance Special was part of
"I was told by my elders: 'We Spokane people had a War Dance and there were
two ways it was done. Before we journeyed over to the mountains we would
dance our vision, what the animal spirit said needed to be done. We knew
our vision was true and we wanted to convince others that we wanted to come
with us that our vision was strong.
"'When we came back, if we did battle we would have a War Dance and tell
the story of the battle, or if it were a raid or a hunting party we would
tell of those events,' and it was passed on and on," said David BrownEagle
prior to the Men's Warrior War Dance Special.
BrownEagle talked of the history of the tribe, saying he had learned from
his elders who in turn had learned from the elders before them that the
Spokane people have always lived on this land from the beginning to the
present. "We are very lucky," he added.
BrownEagle continued: "We come together today to honor our ancestors. I can
only speak for myself but I owe them something - how I treat my brothers,
my sisters, my elders and how I treat my little people. We have a history
with all the tribes in the region: The Cayuse, the Kalispell, the Nez
Perce, Flathead, Kootenai, Palouse, Yakima and others.
We have a history through war and a history of visiting each other's areas
for feasting and sharing. We also have a history together when back in 1858
we came together and fought the U.S. government. We, as a people, have a
proud tradition and a proud history."
The pow wow is an annual event, but this was the first year that a War
Dance Special was added. Elders provided explanations about what each of
the songs meant and the history behind the songs. George Flett, one of the
sponsors of the dance, said that the day following the pow wow: "Everyone
was still talking about it. It opened a lot of eyes here on the
reservation, especially with the younger people who didn't know the history
of old traditional songs used in the War Dance Special."
The entire event was videotaped along with the explanations about the
songs. The video will be preserved both as a teaching tool and a document
for the archives. "The video will be a good learning tool. It's a new way
of holding on to our culture, so it's pretty important," Flett said.
One of the songs performed was the Hangman Song. Pat Moses told of its
history and how it has become part of the history of various Plateau
tribes. Several Cayuse Indians killed 13 people, including two
missionaries, in 1847 in what is now called the Whitman Massacre. That
event set the whole country against the Indians of the region and resulted
in Colonel Steptoe being assigned to the area.
Steptoe was defeated and embarrassed in a military engagement with the
Spokane Tribe and other nearby tribes. Later a second army was sent out
under General George Wright who, with superior weapons, defeated the
The military officers said if the Indian leaders of the Steptoe battle
would surrender there would be a sort of amnesty. Those warriors turned
themselves in to protect the tribes but they were hanged without trial as
enemies of the United States.
Before the hanging, each warrior was asked if he had anything to say. The
first two said no but the third looked at the one who was going to kill
him. Then he looked at the old people and the children who were being made
to watch and he said he had one thing to say: "I have a song so my people
will remember this day."
It could have been his Prayer Song, his Medicine Song, or his Death Song.
He sang it, and when he finished they executed him. But as David BrownEagle
said, "They didn't kill him because his spirit, the spirit of our warriors,
is still with us today.
"We have a rich history. We gather today to honor our ancestors, those who
got murdered, who got raped, and those who died in battle. We had that war
in 1858 so we could have today, we could have this moment," BrownEagle
Relatively few pow wows occur throughout the Northern Plateau region during
the winter months. The Spokane Reservation was established on Jan. 18, 1881
and provides the reason for holding a mid-winter celebration.
The Alex Sherwood Center has been remodeled recently, providing warmth
against the biting cold of January as well as seating for visitors. Twelve
drums from as far away as North Dakota, the White Lodge drum, and nearly
400 dancers from tiny tots to elders were on hand with dance competitions
in all categories.
War veterans were given special recognition and presented with gifts prior
to the Warriors Special. A special grand entry prior to the War Dance was
the plateau-style Snake Dance, where warriors would tell their village of
triumphs in battle or in hunting parties.
Twenty-nine men entered the War Dance Special. Four winners were awarded
prizes ranging from $200 to $1,000. Nathan Provoest, Piegan, from Alberta,
was awarded first place. Russell McCloud, Yakama, a world-champion
Traditional dancer from Washington, was second. Quincy Jackson, Nez Perce,
from Idaho was third and Coyta Rider, Blackfeet, from Montana took fourth.
The Warriors Special was so well received and created so much interest that
plans are underway to include it next year. Flett used the group from
Alberta as an example: "They were appreciative of the way things were
explained. They said they'd definitely be back and will bring more friends