A century ago, dance was a ceremonial rite of the Nez Perce. There were mating dances, dances to recognize visiting chiefs, dances to prepare for expeditions, medicine dances forbidden to non-Indians and dances to display scalps after battle.
Only the men were allowed to dance. The motions were slow and entrancing, and the clothing was less bright and fiery than it is now.In the middle of the 20th century, changes occurred. When the men were called to duty for World War II, women were suddenly included in Nez Perce dance. Powwows united several tribes where techniques were shared, clothing and ideas exchanged. Dancers competed and still do for prize money at these powwows.
Over time and after much mingling, bits of Cree, Navajo, Southwestern and Midwestern tribal techniques became integrated into Nez Perce dance. "Each tribe borrowed from each tribe," said Mike Penney, drumkeeper for the Nez Perce dancers and drummers who took part in the recent Rendezvous in the Park.
Nez Perce elders now would like to see more of the traditional style return.
"One of the most important conclusions I have is that our dances have become too commercial," explained Alan Slickpoo, 61, who's been dancing and teaching his children and grandchildren Nez Perce tradition all his life. "The prize money has almost become more dominant than the traditional intent of the dances."
Penney, 42, says he remembers as a child going to powwows and being able to identify a person's tribe by his dance. "Anymore, it's kind of hard to identify them," he said.