Skies hazy from summer fires and a punishing sun that relented only when forced over the horizon couldn’t temper the pride, enthusiasm, and unbound energy of the 55th annual Shoshone-Bannock Powwow at Fort Hall. Significant also is that 2018 marked the 150th anniversary of the Fort Bridger Treaty of 1868. This was an arrangement by which Chief Pocatello of the Northern Shoshone sued the United States for peace and subsequently agreed to be relocated with three other Shoshone and Bannock bands of the Northern Paiute Tribe to current-day Fort Hall. The historic event was reenacted in early July at Fort Bridger, Wyoming and included members of both the Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock tribal nations.
For the uninitiated, a powwow may seem like an informal festival with multiple venues, food and craft vendors, and a semblance of organization that revolves mostly around the constant dancing and various types of dances—Fancy, Straight, Jingle Dress, etc. However, the subtext of ritual, symbolism, etiquette, and protocol mark the event as a deeply personal, communal experience not unlike an extended family reunion, and as a way to express reciprocal values, belief systems, and worldview. The word “powwow” is a derivation of “powwaa,” a Narragansett word that means “spiritual leader.” Thus, a powwow gathers spiritual strength in numbers as participants reconnect, express traditions, and perpetuate cultural legacies.
Beyond the central attraction of the dancers, the powwow is layered with events that promote identity through the maintenance of customs and rituals, material culture, foodways, and sport. The array of activities includes both the traditional and non as a way to engage both the old and young and express the full dynamic of a living culture. For example, the Indian Relay Race, a horse race born on the Fort Hall reservation over a hundred years ago, consists of five teams of four team members each, three horses per team, and the goal of one rider running one lap per horse, switching horses on the fly without help from other team members. The race is very traditional, very ritualized, and often involves families who have participated for several generations as a team. Same for the Handgame, a guessing game between two teams that predates recorded history and learned entirely within the oral tradition.
On the other hand, the festival also offers softball, golf, and horseshoe tournaments, a fully-sanctioned rodeo, sno-cones, southern-style BBQ, and contemporary paintings and sculpture. You are as likely to see a teenager playing the Handgame as you are a tribal elder eating a sno-cone. Meaning, vitality, and life are derived and supported through the performance of the various activities offered and the effect of disparity between traditional and pop culture signifies a culture in process, not one that forgoes tradition for technology, not one that stagnates in an epoch that never quite was, not one that moves through time on a linear plane, but one whose origin stories circle back and directly influence future unborn generations. The victory of the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival is the variety of performance in a 55 year-old tradition that dates to time immemorial and sets the stage for millennia to come.
‒ Steven Hatcher, Folk & Traditional Arts Director