A Window Into Native American Culture

Cheyenne Frontier Days’ annual Native American powwow invites visitors to share in indigenous culture

Members of the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group enter the performance area at Cheyenne Frontier Days’ Indian Village. Pictured from left to right are Randee Iron Cloud, Cassandra Iron Cloud, Amani Iron Cloud, Jaci Iron Cloud, Chloe Iron Cloud, Trissy Her Many Horses, Mylee Antelope and Kylee Sankey. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

By Elizabeth Sampson

Special to the Wyoming Truth

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A giant round drum, surrounded by a group of singing drummers sitting at the center of a swirling Native American dance circle, was the beating heart of the Cheyenne Frontier Days (CFD) annual powwow Wednesday.

Throughout the 10-day CFD — the world’s largest outdoor rodeo that draws hundreds of thousands to the capital city each year — the PRCA rodeo takes center stage. But the entire event celebrates many aspects of western heritage, including Native American culture.

Sam Her Many Horses performs with the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group at Cheyenne Frontier Days. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

For many visitors, the highlight of CFD is watching the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group perform in the Indian Village at Frontier Park. The village showcases Native American dancing, singing, drumming, flute playing and storytelling, but during the Wednesday night powwow, audience members can enter the dance circle and experience Native American culture firsthand.

The Davis family of Cheyenne did just that.

“I love to see the other cultures and how they interact,” said Misty Davis, 41, who attended the powwow with her husband and children. “I love the fact that they tell us so much information about the dances—how they were created, how they are part of their society. You don’t just see this beautiful dance; you get to see part of their history with it.”

Chloe Davis, 13, called the powwow “magical,” as she joined two of her sisters when the teenage girls in the audience were invited to join the dance circle. 

“It’s for the audience—for them to participate,” said Sandra Iron Cloud, 60, an Ethete resident and co-coordinator of the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group.

At CFD, Iron Cloud’s group, comprised of 30 dancers and singers, showcases the thriving culture of the Northern Plains Indigenous peoples. Many of her dancers hail from the Wind River Reservation and are members of the Northern Arapaho, Oglala Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Dakota tribes.

Powwows take place throughout the western United States almost every month of the year, and some in Iron Cloud’s group attend one nearly every weekend. Their season kicks off in March with the Denver Powwow and continues with events in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. The group wraps up in October before sticking close to home at the Wind River Reservation for its community Christmas and New Year’s powwows. 

Jolynn Fighting Bear displays her dancing regalia as she faces the drummers during a performance by the Little Sun Drum and Dance Group during the annual powwow at Cheyenne Frontier Days. (Wyoming Truth photo by Elizabeth Sampson)

“We come [to CFD] to give a glimpse of who we are as powwow people,” Iron Cloud said. “We’re just everyday people showing and sharing about part of our way of life, of why we are still here, of why we are still resilient and why we are so proud of who we are as Native American indigenous people.”

Connecting with his own Native American roots is what drew Cheyenne’s Nathan Johnson, 39, to the powwow with his wife and children.

“I love seeing that they are keeping the culture alive,” said Johnson, noting that his favorite dance is the men’s traditional dance, before he and his children entered the dance circle.

“It’s traditional—I can actually do it.”

Johnson’s wife, Kimberly, 30, said her favorite part of the event was the hoop dancing, which was performed by Jasmine Pickner-Bell and her two young daughters.

“I love that this year she has her kids involved,” she said.

For 15-year-old Elysiana Hernandez, it’s the dancers’ colorful regalia that keeps her coming back to the Indian Village.

“I’ve always come, ever since I was six,” said Hernandez, a Cheyenne resident,  sampling an Indian taco from a nearby food stand. “It’s unique, colorful, different. I like the way they make the sounds with their music. I just like the culture.” 

Iron Cloud is working with the CFD Indian Committee to create more educational showcases in recognition of event-goers’ interest in Native American culture.  This year, for example, the Indian Village features a tipi where visitors can learn about history of the Northern Plains tribes and their use of the buffalo, as well as information about the dancers’ regalia. 

“It’s a weeklong of education; a weeklong of social and cultural awareness,” Iron Cloud said. “We are here to share, to give a little part of who we are. … This is giving you a brief window into who we are as unique people, as indigenous people, as people of the northern plains.”

As CFD celebrates its 126th anniversary, Iron Cloud is happy to continue the tradition of Native Americans participating in the iconic Wyoming event.

“We’re here to enhance the western theme of Cheyenne Frontier Days,” Iron Cloud said. “It’s an epic event that is a historical event for many. We are glad to be part of it and are here to help promote what it stands for—what Wyoming stands for. Like my son said, you can’t have cowboys without Indians.”

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