Sunday, June 5, 2011

True Grit

I had the good fortune to be invited to an Osage tribal gathering yesterday.  Well, I was invited weeks ago, but it was yesterday.  And yesterday was day three of four days of this group of people coming together.  I thought of everything I knew of stereotypical Native American gatherings and consciously threw those things out the window.

I wasn't sure what to expect.  My friend, V, and her entire family are Osage and as such participate in the yearly dancing, eating and fellowship that meets in Gray Horse on the reservation in June.  I am white, to be sure, and even whiter than most of my white friends.  I probably glow in the dark and I knew I would stand out like a sore thumb.  So what to wear that would be cool and also socially acceptable?  Something that wouldn't make me stand out so much.  You know if you're going to a job interview or any social gathering where you haven't been before, it's always a good idea to ask ahead of time rather than just showing up.  Left to my own devices, I might have worn a skinny tank top and no bra, maybe some jeans.... V said that anything was fine as long as there were no spaghetti straps or short short skirts. No problem there.  I wore a long summer dress with a cardigan and my hair in a bun.  Crisis one averted.  But I just knew that since I didn't know anything I would probably end up saying or doing something stupid. And I did. We'll get to that.

It's June in Oklahoma, which usually means that I'm crouched by the air conditioner.  When forced outside to forage for food, I go from my cool house to my blasting-the-air conditioner-car to the frozen food section of the grocery store.  It stays that way until September 15th.  Except for yesterday.  V sent me directions to her house and to Gray Horse, which is somewhere in the North and Central to East-ish portion of Oklahoma.  I looked on Google maps for the area, terrain or other information.  It showed a picture of some old time ocean waves and painted green trees and the words "Thar be dragons" in old English script. The directions she sent included turning right at a boat storage facility and driving around a couple of bends, then taking the left fork of a gravel road past a structure that used to be there but isn't anymore.  I am not kidding.  I sped right past the turn off.  I knew I would.  And there isn't really cell phone reception in every place out in the forested dragon sea, so I blew up V's phone until I backtracked enough to find her residence.  My messages sounded something like this, said in a cheerful tone: "Hey, it's Mindie.  I'm still lost.  I drove by a gorgeous lake and there is a fire department on the right.  Lots of rednecks out here too.  Call me, or I could die out here. Bye!"

We made it to the meeting place in record time.  I drove while V got ready. The meeting place was another 40 minutes out there and my cell phone didn't work the rest of the afternoon.  Fine by me. Once we arrived, it was time for her to get the dancers ready for the afternoon dance.  This was the first sons dance and is only performed by the firstborn sons in the tribe.  Only these sons wear red in the ceremonial dances too.  Under an arbor, away from the searing hot sun, several men and boys were getting dressed in Straight Dance clothing.  Everything begins with footwear.  The traditional mens moccasins are heavily beaded in geometric patterns for Osage, and more abstract patterns for Otoe tribes.  Two of the group had their family names in the beadwork and I can barely fathom how many hours and how much work, concentration and love went into making them.  I watched from a corner and stayed out of the way, but had a good vantage point.  From the ground up it seems, the men, aided by V, got dressed in leggins, drops, guards (which are colorful and ornate in geometric straight lines patterns), bells and patterned and beaded belts.  There were bustles and aprons too.  The bells were loud and often crossed thrice around the leg below the knee. Each step made them sing.  Long ribbon shirts made of all sorts of patterns and colors comprised the men's shirts and they wore  more ribbons on their armbands too.  Sometimes the men also put on vests.  On their backs laid otter hides and back feathers and around their necks, beaded chokers.  Next the men donned kerchiefs around their necks, held with beautiful silver clasps, and plain white kerchiefs where one would ear a sweatband.  On top of everything, a horsehair or deer hair roach was tied tightly under the chin and an eagle feather placed on top.  Another eagle feather laid to one side or the other, depending on one's clan affiliation.  Eagle fans and either sticks, weapons or a mirror were held in the men's hands as they got ready to go walk to the main arbor. There are no short cuts, there is no throwing something on as quickly as possible and going.  Everything must be secure and in place. It must not slip off. Getting ready takes time and concentration.  Much time and money and effort goes into making individual pieces, creating outfits and keeping tradition.  Sometimes, V would hold up a piece of clothing or ornamentation and explain it's significance for my benefit- everyone seemed to know the history behind each piece- who made or bought it, who owned it before and how much V either liked or disliked the looks of it.

As they got ready, much of V's family was there.  They talked and joked and spoke softly with few sharp words and a lot of smiling.  Her brother has four children and while young, they have seen this all before but paid attention in the way children do- around the other parts of their lives spent playing and wrestling over gatorade and fresh cherries.  As the first son's made for the main arbor, their steps rang out to herald their movements.  It was time to get the girls ready.

Men and women dance in the same place but not together. The girls had heavy wool broadcloth skirts and leggins if they wanted to wear them.  The leggins are separate from each other and from what I could tell, a pain in the ass to put on and wear.  The skirt is tied on- no buttons or zippers or pinning.  Tied on tightly around the waist.  It can't be allowed to slip in the slightest.  A long patterned ribbon shirt goes over the top and is clipped at the neck, with large silver buttons and a ribbon down the back for maidens.  In their hair were often beaded clips and intricate shawls are either carried or worn over the shoulders, and eagle fans are carried as accoutrement.  Beaded purses are also acceptable.

V pronounced the girls beautiful and we made for the main arbor, seating ourselves on hard benches.  My butt promptly went to sleep and I started sweating under my breasts.  It was over 100 degrees.  I didn't care.  The singers were in the middle of the arbor, around the drum, singing in Osage.  At the beginning of every dance, the men stood and crossed to the arena, then danced in a circle in time to the music.  About 200 first sons were there, stepping and dancing, moving the humid air with them, dancing together amongst the assembled 400 or so other people in attendance for that afternoon.  Tail dancers came in at the end of the dance, to expound or extend on what had transpired and to bring an end to that particular dance.  And whipmen were in place to keep everyone in line.  If a dancer drops something- a bell, a feather, any part of their regalia, the whipmen pick it up and it must be retrieved in front of everyone.  Likewise, the whipmen have actual whips to keep people from misbehaving.  At the end of each song, everyone goes to sit down and it sounds like rain falling as they walk. At breaks, the water boys each took a post and walked around to each of the dancers, offering them water from a bucket with ladles.

The women dance outside of the men's circle and they also dance together in time to the singing.  The girls danced, and V danced as well. No bells, just shawls and dresses and moccasins and the occasional whiff of moth balls.  I asked V about that and she said that their clothes are stored in moth balls and it is one of her favorite smells in the world.  I was overwhelmed by the colors and the sounds and how comfortable everyone seemed with themselves and with each other.  I missed so much more than what I caught and I've articulated so few of those things.  Just imagine that my face looked like a muppet, frozen in mid-air with my mouth wide open.  I took no pictures and wrote no notes and honestly, it's best that way.  I'd rather keep the impressions and feelings rather than look at a photograph.

Other things happen at these shindigs besides dancing.  There are committees to attend to and giveaways and lots and lots of food. At the end of the afternoon dance, V and everyone headed back to the family arbor.  Along the way, we stopped and visited with everyone in the world.  She introduced me to cousins and friends and older people and aunts and children- who were polite and sweet- and V teased every last one of them she met. They teased her right back. It was time to eat. The cooks all cook over open fire pits and make everything from scratch.  Long tables are set up and in our arbor, about 50 people gathered to have a meal.  Kind words were said and a prayer offered and we dug in.  V urged me to try everything.  I hadn't eaten all day and  was famished.  The feeling had finally come back to my butt too, except that when I sat on the narrow wooden bench, it fell back into numbness and stayed there until this morning.  I shrugged and tucked into a meal of brisket, fry bread, dumplings in gravy, hominy, taco salad, fresh fruit, and dried meat stew.  The dried meat stew is exactly what you'd think- thin strips of meat dried in the sun and reconstituted into a thin bouillon with rice.  Delicious. Every bit of it cooked over the fires with hard work and cooperation. I don't think I've eaten so well in years and could not possibly reproduce the taste of that meal. First, I don't cook over fires very well and second, I'm not Osage.  Many of the recipes are passed down from generations.  Practice cooking takes place before events, so that the younger women can learn how to cook certain foods and discussions center around old variety and hybrid corns and where to get seed to plant, who makes the most delicious version of a particular dish and how they do it and practical discussions for everyday cooking.  I helped clean up.  I cleared dishes and smiled at people and was really grateful to have something useful to do.  It's something my Grandma always suggested I do- when you're company at someone else's house, you offer to help cook or clean up.  But sitting there like a bump on a log is not a good idea.

The evening dance commenced at 8 that night.  More men danced since the earlier dance was firstborn son's dance.  Hundreds of dancers were in attendance and V, her sister-in-law and mother helped get everyone ready.  I was handed a camera and asked to photograph this process and caught pictures of mothers and fathers and aunts helping their children, tying roaches as tight as humanly possible, slicking back braids and smiling toothy smiles.  Telling everyone how beautiful they are and occasionally soothing bored little kids while shimmying them into moccasins.  Nine dancers emerged from the family arbor that I saw, and probably half a dozen or so more that escaped notice while I was busy.  The sun was setting and I felt dusty and skanky.  V assured me that everyone felt that way and advised me to remove my cardigan.  I didn't want to.  I didn't want to be anything less than really polite and formal, but the sweat was starting to bead up under my armpits again and my fuzzy hair was escaping the severe bun I'd stuck it in so many hours ago.  I took off the damp jacket and breathed a little easier.  The dancing resumed as it had earlier, only with many more dancers, onlookers 30 deep, and a few water breaks. There were trotting songs, trickster songs and prayer songs.  There were even a few family songs.  Members of V's family took turns telling me important things; things I needed to know.  Like not pointing at people. And the significance of a song and some of the meanings of people's outfits and even some familial ties.  And wouldn't you know it? By the time the dancing was over, I was hungry again.  I hadn't done anything all day except eat and sit, yet here I was hungry.  I can't imagine how the dancers must feel- dancing for hours on end in the heat. I was asked what I thought of the whole thing and I struggled for words, saying that it was my first time at a powwow and I would never forget such a wonderful experience.  "It's not a powwow", was the response.  Shit. Gathering. My first gathering. I needed to know that too.  I took my hair down from its bun.

When it was all said and done, we made it home around one in the morning.  Too tired to shower, I brushed my teeth and flopped down on the couch.  I worried that I wouldn't be able to sleep.  V had told me stories of the mountain lions and giant spiders and raccoons and showed me the place above her stove where a scorpion had dropped through the vent last year.  I squashed a tiny spider with my shoe and laid down, dried sweat and dust and funk, and passed out cold. As I drove home today, back to Oklahoma City, to my air conditioning and an ancient cat who would describe herself as "indoorsy", I knew that V and her family were commencing their fourth day of ceremonies under the hot Oklahoma sun.

I'm lucky to have been invited and lucky to go in early June, before it gets "really hot and and really dusty" at the other district gatherings. It felt so much like a giant family reunion, only much more beautiful and meaningful.  Maybe they will ask me back next year.          


  1. What an amazing experience, Mindie -- I love your sharing of it. I can almost taste the dried meat, and feel the heat and sweat and hear the bells. Wow... ~Britton

  2. What a beautiful experience! I agree that oftentimes photos just can't do an event justice, you have to remember it from the feelings stirred up. As always, amazing writing on your part! :D