Wyoming isn’t always known as a bastion of cultural intersection, but for Saturday afternoon the Teton County Fairgrounds will facilitate an exchange centuries in the making.
For six hours the fairgrounds will transform from a cowboy landmark to an extension of Indian Country for the first-ever Teton Pow Wow. Hosted by Central Wyoming College’s United Tribes Club, the gathering is similar to events the club has held at the college’s main campus in Riverton.
“It’s a club for Native students,” the college’s Tribal Education Coordinator Ivan Posey said. “It’s to bring educational opportunities like pow wows and awareness of tribal issues to the forefront.”
Strictly speaking, pow wows are social gatherings at which tribes meet for dancing, food and competition. The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage says that the term originated from a cultural misappropriation: White settlers started misusing the word “pau wau,” meaning medicine man, as a descriptor for gatherings of Native tribes, and somewhere along the line indigenous people reclaimed the word.
The Folklife Center says modern pow wows, like the one coming to the fairgrounds, derive from gatherings hosted by Plains Indians. The gates open at 11 a.m., with the Grand Entry — the official opening — to take place at noon. Anyone who is interested is welcome to come to the free event.
“That’s how it is in Indian Country,” Posey said. “They’re all open to the public. It’s a celebration of dance, expression, and it’s something that’s always been open.”
Stories of conservation, of early white explorers, of the movers and shakers who created the town we know today often dominate Jackson Hole’s history, but the movement of people in the region far predates settlers like Nick Wilson and John Colter. The college hopes the Teton Pow Wow will bring to the fore a more complete picture of the region.
“Those that live in the West have legends and stories about the West and how we came to be,” CWC-Jackson Outreach Center Director Susan Durfee said. “But if you do not have the opportunity to meet with those that identify as Native American … the stories we have of the West are simply that, stories.”
The Teton Pow Wow will be a chance to experience Native culture from several regional tribes. Vendors from the Shoshone-Bannock tribes from Idaho’s Fort Hall Reservation, as well as the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes from the Wind River Reservation, will sell traditional food and art.
For the main event the master of ceremonies will lead a series of dance competitions featuring traditional dances and regalia, a chance for neophytes to gain some perspective on Indian social customs.
“It’s a great way for people to learn one portion of our tradition,” Posey said.
Cultural exchange can, however, come with the potential for misappropriation or misunderstanding. The Wyoming Humanities Council, a sponsor of the event along with the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole and the Town of Jackson, has created an etiquette pamphlet (attached to this story online) for those who want to understand how to act.
For instance, it says that during the Grand Entry everyone must stand and remove their hats, and it encourages people to recognize that the Native regalia worn by the dancers is not a “costume,” as it carries the weight of centuries of history and meticulous construction. It also asks that people only take pictures when the master of ceremonies says it’s OK and to ask individuals they would like photos of first, as photography is not always condoned for “sacred reasons.”
Though the afternoon pow wow is short compared with some of the weekend-long extravaganzas that take place around the country, Posey and the college hope it is simply the first of many.
“Jackson is one area that was our ancestral homeland,” he said. “It’s good that we return and hopefully start something that is more consistent, or held annually.
“It’s something that has been missed.” ￼