August 15, 2023
In the Lakota language, pow-wows are called wacipi (wah-CHEE-pee), which means “they dance.” The wacipi is a traditional Native American celebration of life; a time when people gather to dance, sing, celebrate, and renew friendships. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe, more properly known as Sicangu Lakota Oyate, or Burnt Thigh People, are descendants of the Tetonwan Division of the Seven Council Fires.
It’s a Saturday in late August 2001 at the tribal fairgrounds in Rosebud, South Dakota. The drumbeat reaches my core; becomes my heartbeat. Men chant ancient and modern Lakota songs. Brilliant colors nearly overwhelm me. Dancers clad in fantastic costumes of feathers, buckskin, beads, and jingles spin and dip under the hot sun. Flags fly; proud veterans march in dust-coated uniforms. The smell of fry bread hangs thick in the air.
Several other adults and I accompanied fifteen foster children to the Rosebud Fair and Wacipi to watch the festivities and learn about the culture—and we are being treated as honored guests. Elders invited us to march in the grand entry with all the colorful dancers—in a place of honor near the front, just behind the royalty. They did this as a tribute to our work with foster children and Native youth.
The children are participants in a “cultural camp” sponsored by local mental health and substance abuse services. When I signed up to help, a spokeswoman for the sponsoring organization told me, “The purpose of the camp is to bring Native American and non-Indian children together to begin to understand and appreciate each other’s culture. We use the ‘buddy system’ to pair up each camper with a child of the other culture.”
Last evening the campers gathered in a local park to make their costumes. The girls made traditional dresses of soft deerskin, decorated with beads. The boys made elk hide shirts and dancing sticks.
Our adventure began in earnest this morning, with a trip to St. Francis, SD to tour the Lakota museum there before we came here, to Rosebud. We toured exhibits and attended the rodeo, ate a traditional Lakota meal, and checked out the carnival before getting to the heart of the event—the dancing.
Our group proudly wears matching shirts with the lettering, Mitakuye Oyasin, which in the Lakota language means “All My Relatives.” My friend Jim, who has Lakota and Ponca heritage, designed the logo: a circle with a buffalo skull in the center and four horses, in red, yellow, black, and white (and one with blue) loping around its perimeter.
“Our people believe all life is a circle,” Jim explains. “The buffalo was our sustenance; it is at the center of the circle. The four horses represent the different races, red, white, yellow, and black. The blue is the sky over us all. We are all relatives.” Jim is a Vietnam veteran who spends much of his time working with troubled and at-risk Native American children to help them understand and appreciate their culture.
The Grand Entry is the highlight of our weekend. I’m feeling excited and a little nervous as parade organizers line us up outside the arena and give last-minute instructions. The campers look incredible in their handmade costumes. My nine-year-old, Chantelle, looks up at me and grins, her feet encased in brand-new beaded moccasins given to her by her birth family for the occasion. The drums pause.
The emcee nods and the drums restart with a new beat. The parade participants begin moving through the gate. The announcer first honors the veterans and the parade royalty, and then our group, before introducing all the categories of dancers.
I survey the “buddy pairs” in line ahead of me. They are already swaying and dancing in step with the rhythm. Unbidden, I feel my own feet do the same. And then, total immersion.
At first, it almost feels like I’m drowning in a sea of deerskin, jingles, and feathers as we weave and dance like a long, colorful snake. But the steady drumbeat offers a lifeline, and I grab it with all of my senses. The air smells of sweat, dust, and food. I can almost taste the tatanka—bison stew. Beyond the drumbeat, I hear voices murmuring in Lakota and English. I feel the crush of dancers around me. Elbows and knees fly dangerously close to my head but never make contact. The fancy dancers spin so fast that they appear as a blur of colors. The traditional dancers bob up and down, methodically placing one foot in front of the other, providing a comforting sense of balance.
Feeling a small hand in mine, I look down at a little jingle dancer as she pulls me forward. I realize with a start that she’s my own seven-year-old foster daughter. Time stands still as we move together, links in a long, concentric chain of humanity, spiraling toward the center of our arena universe.
The spiral tightens and eventually we can march no further. The drums stop and we enjoy an up-close view of the speakers and honor guard at the center of the arena. After the formalities, the beat resumes and our spiral unwinds as we sway and dance our way back to the arena gate. The ever-present drums define our day and our existence.
Today has changed my life forever.
Photo by RST office staff for Sicangu Eyapaha newsletter
One thought on “Grand entry at the Rosebud Wacipi: A stunning experience”
Denise Mount says: August 18, 2023 at 12:40 pm
This is so lovely, Sandy, and as with all your other adventures, I can’t wait to hear more! Thanks