The very name ‘Frontier Days’ is meant to conjure up images of the old West. And that includes Native Americans, who have been a part of Cheyenne Frontier Days pretty much from the beginning. The North Bear Singers and Little Sun Drum and Dance Group, from the Wind River Indian Reservation are the main attraction this year, occupying the arena at the center of the Indian Village.
It’s ringed by vendors selling traditional—and not-so-traditional—crafts. Bead worker Jim Howling Wolf says visitors want to see traditional items like baskets and rugs, but that’s not necessarily what sells best. “The beadwork is still traditional in the way it’s done,” he explains. “But the items that I’m beading are more non-traditional: Ninja Turtles, Hello Kitties…”
You can see that balance between old and new in dance circle, too. The dancers wear feathers and moccasins, the drum players and singers are wearing sneakers and ball caps. Coordinator Sandra Iron Cloud introduces the groups. “I am a member of the Northern Arapahoe people. And we are happy to be here, to share with you, give you some cultural insights as to our everyday lives and also as what we do as Pow Wow people.”
It’s a nuance some visitors don’t get right away, says Shorty Lowdermilk. He’s been volunteering at the Indian Village for 35 years, and he says some people think Indians are stuck in the 1800s. “Honestly,” he says, “we actually have people that ask, ‘Do they live here all the time in the teepees?’ It’s like, no they have jobs just like the rest of us do.”
Sandra Iron Cloud says she’s had a great time at Frontier Days, but she has also experienced some stereotyping. “You know, you see it a little bit sometimes, like one time we went to the rodeo grounds and they started war whooping at us and some started cussing at us. But they were drunk. Drunk cowboys, what do you expect? See, that’s a stereotype right there, too.”
Of course, reality is more complicated. Tradition isn’t stuck in time; it’s more like practices that carry on through time and that can change along the way. For instance, Native American fancy dance—with its quick footwork—took off in the 1950s and 60s in the southern Plains, which might seem pretty new compared to the 1800s.
“There is somewhere between a misunderstanding and a false perception of what Native America really is at this point in history,” says Lakota musician Paul LaRoche, who performed at Frontier Days with his band Brulé.
“It’s not a bad perception, it’s just that it’s behind. You know, I would say it’s 50 to 60 years behind where our culture really is today.” LaRoche offers a modern American Indian experience with his music by mixing Native drums with synthesizers and electric guitars.
And what’s now traditional was itself once new—like Sandra Iron Cloud’s calico dress, “which is symbolic of the trading days, the late 1800s, when the buffalo, you know…when we were put on reservations.”
“A lot of people, because we’re in Wyoming, think the Indians and the cowboys are still fighting, and we’re not,” says volunteer Shorty Lowdermilk. He points out two of the dances quickly dispelled that idea. An honor dance for one of Cheyenne Frontier Days committees had cowboy hats mingling with feathers in the dance circle. And at the end, the entire audience was invited to join in.
“Come join us,” called out one of the singers. “This is our friendship dance. This is how we come together as people. We come together as relations, as friends, as family…”
John Fernandez was visiting Frontier Days from New Hampshire and participated in the friendship dance. “Part of what makes America America is that we all live together,” he reflected afterwards. “And we can harmoniously carry out these traditions and have respect for each other.”
And that’s a very new idea.