With tribal drums pounding, hundreds of Indians circled in a slow rhythmic dance to form a sea of feather headdresses and begin the world's largest powwow.
The Gathering of Nations, expected to draw 100,000 people for its two-day run Friday and Saturday, up dramatically from the roughly 1,200 who attended in 1983 when the event began. More than 3,000 singers and dancers from more than 700 tribes from the United States and Canada participated."We are all here to celebrate," said Princess Smilingwind, 58, of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.
In a voice loud enough to be heard over the heartbeat rhythm of table-size drums and the traditional singing, Smilingwind explained the pleasure of watching Indian children dance.
"It's beautiful. I see tomorrow's generation," she said on Friday. "I see proud families who took the time to teach their children their culture and to be proud of who they are and where they come from."
Children may begin to compete once they're big enough to walk. There are 26 dance competition categories that run from "tiny tots" to "golden dancers" - those 70 years and older.
"We can't compete with the young, pretty girls. We compete in our own group so we can have a chance," said Sandy Spottedwolf, 55, a Cheyenne from Bessie, Okla.
Like her 6-year-old granddaughter Anna, Spottedwolf started dancing very young. Over the years she has seen the gatherings grow and the outfits change.
"When I was younger it was strictly traditional," she said.
Back then, the regalia was made of leather, eagle feathers, horse hair, beads and the like. Now, some dancers use sequins, fringe and satin along with the traditional items to liven things up. No two outfits are exactly alike.
It's all in the name of competition. "You have to catch the judge's eye," Spottedwolf said.
Some say powwows began as a means to build courage among the tribe's young boys before heading to war; others say they were tribal celebrations.
Today, it's about seeing old friends, meeting new ones and spending time with family. The event had a festival atmosphere with vendors selling Indian jewelry, a snack called fry bread and other items.