Claremore Daily Progress

Oklahoma State House

May 17, 2014

Traditions celebrated at powwow in new Highland Park Elementary School gymnasium

Generations reconnect at event

STILLWATER, Okla. — Under the bright lights of the new Highland Park Elementary gymnasium, the drums beat with the voices of generations singing traditional Native American songs and swaying in a side-to-side shuffle on Saturday afternoon. The modern day powwow does not pass the peace pipe of Western movie folklore, but serves as a gathering place to socialize and honor Native American traditions. Contests Saturday night offered prize money to competitors in grass, buckskin and fancy jingle dances.

Starla Bilyeu, Stillwater Public Schools director of Indian Education, wanted to offer a cultural opportunity for students to experience a traditional powwow. She coordinated POWWOW 101 classes for families to attend throughout the year so they would know what to expect. The events send a message that “our people are alive and well – living as productive citizens today,” she said.

“Powwow” derives from a Narragansett word meaning spirtual leader.

“The events are a spiritual connection,” said Jimmy Whiteshirt of Pawnee heritage.  

He carried a traditional gourd in the shakers he used in his dance movements. Military and police patches decorated his fringed shawl. As a Vietnam-era United States Air Force veteran, Whiteshirt served as a Tulsa Police Department officer and now works as a criminal investigator for the Tulsa Community College Police Department.

“The powwow is open to everybody. It teaches our younger generation traditional ways,” Whiteshirt said. “Spirituality – connecting with God in the gourd dance – it is part of my culture.”

Reconnecting at powwows has been important to Benny Tahmahkera, vice chairman of the Comanche Little Ponies, who were the gourd dance clan hosts. After serving 20 years in the Marines with adventures in Iraq and Somalia, he said he is “living his dream” back on American soil. Tahmahkera earned bachelor’s and master’s degree in Native American studies at the University of Oklahoma.

He explained the Comanche Little Ponies are a tradition dating back to when Spanish explorers first encountered the native people of Comancheria, a vast territory including parts of Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma. The hunter-gatherers developed into a nomadic horse culture and young men were left in the encampments to take care of the women and children while the warriors left to hunt. The young men became known as the “Little Ponies” who were responsible for their communities. The tradition was revived by World War II soldiers going overseas to fight on the front lines and leaving behind their families. As in the warrior days of old, the Little Ponies became responsible for the homefront when the men were called to fight.

“There are more than 200 Little Ponies across the nation now,” Tahmahkera said. “Symbolism is part of all the powwows and teaches the younger generation about our past. It’s significant to the Indian community to stay connected.”

The Comanche Little Ponies Princess Katharine Howell agrees. At 14, she has been coming to powwows all her life. “Tu Taatu hubi” is her Comanche name meaning “little woman.” Her grandmother Rita made her dress and beadwork was created by friends. She said the powwows are important to keep the culture going.

“I need to know where I came from in order to know who I am,” she said.

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Oklahoma State House