They Dance

Experience a Wacipi or powwow and learn more about American Indian culture.
Mary So Happy and Wally Ripplinger will be a part of the Chaske Cikala Wacipi on August 15-16 at Lion’s Park in Chaska.

Several generations have passed since the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War. Over time, some healing has occurred and with it, an increased interest by the non-native population to understand Native customs and traditions which were once off limits. A traditional event that is becoming mainstream and draws the most interest is the Wacipi or powwow. To understand the powwow, one must first understand a little about the Native way of doing things.

It is hard to describe the American Indian way of life. The easiest way is to simply say it is a respectful way of living. It is about giving, instead of getting, and knowing that the world we live in is a shared place. It is about having great respect for your elders, both alive and those in the Spirit World. It is about being in sync with family, nature and, most importantly, with the Creator and Mother Earth.

Wally Ripplinger, who oversees the annual Chaske Cikala Wacipi in Chaska, encourages everyone to attend. “Everyone is welcome at a powwow, but there is protocol that must be observed when attending,” he says.

There is absolutely no alcohol or drugs allowed at any time. The Wacipi is a form of praise and worship, so the event should be attended in the same way as one would attend a church service. Volunteers are welcomed. “The city of Chaska has been a phenomenal host for the Wacipi and the Boy Scouts have helped with security,” Ripplinger says. Donations and grants have allowed the dance to be free to anyone who would like to attend, however donations are welcomed to offset the $10,000 cost of the dance.

In Why We Dance, MariJo Moore explains the reason for dancing as “a way to experience the interconnectedness of life through motion. Dancing is an art that was here before the conception of art ever existed. It is a necessity for Indian people—a necessary spiritual action requiring dedication and a devout sense of reverence.”

Photos of dancers in their regalia (not costumes) can be taken, but as giving is characteristic of Dakota generosity, it is customary that a monetary gift be offered to the dancer along with an offer to send the dancer a copy of the photo. When a gift is received, everyone involved is thanked by the recipient. An appropriate time for a gift would be when asking to take a photo of a dancer. The Master of Ceremonies will let you know when photos cannot be taken. Never touch a dancer’s regalia.

The drum is considered the heartbeat of Mother Earth. The singing should never be recorded without permission. If you wish to sing along, permission from the head singer will be required. For the non-Native, the songs sung with the drum may at first sound like chanting, but with a little time, songs will be discernible. Most songs in Minnesota are sung in the Dakota or Ojibwa language.

When the eagle feather is brought in during the Grand Entry, everyone should stand and remove hats as a sign of respect. “Everyone is welcome to join in the dance circle during the inter-tribal dances. The Master of Ceremonies will let you know when the time is appropriate,” Ripplinger says. “Dancing during the inter-tribal dance is a way of experiencing our culture. We welcome dancers; however women must not wear any clothing that is revealing, such as a halter top. This is out of respect, as the circle is a place of prayer.”

There are three men’s dances—Traditional, Fancy and Grass—and three women’s dances—Fancy, Jingle and Traditional.

The Men’s Traditional is a style that developed in the late 1880s.
Originally only dignified warriors were allowed to wear the bustle and roach.
Men’s Fancy is a fast dance that is often described as bright. The bustles are
larger and brighter in color, with more feathers and fluffs. Traditionally this
is a young man’s dance. Men’s Grass dancers had the job of flattening the grass
in the area before the Wacipi. Grass or sweet grass was traditionally tied to
the dancers’ belts. The ideal grass dance is one where the dancer tries to move
their fringe in as many ways and in as many directions as possible all at once.

Women’s Fancy Shawl is a reflection of the Men’s Fancy Dance. The
regalia is bright with an elaborately designed shawl worn on the shoulders. The
dancer tries to move a long fringe located on the skirt. The Jingle dance is
revered as a healing dance. The “jingle” is from cone shaped metal pieces sewn
to the dress. The metal cones are constructed from the tops of chewing tobacco
lids. Traditionally, there are 365 cones, one for each day of the year. Women’s
Traditional dances are the oldest type of women’s dances. This dance is the
slowest as it represents grace and elegance. Dancers carry a colorful shawl over
their arm and carry a fan. The fan is raised to the drum during the “honor”
beats of the song.

There are two Wacipis nearby. The Chaske Cikala Wacipi is August 15-16 at Lion’s Park in Chaska.

The Mendota Mdewakaton Tribal Community is hosting a powwow Sept. 11-13 at the St. Peter’s Church grounds in Mendota.

-Wendy Petersen Biorn is the executive director of the Carver County Historical Society in Waconia. She is an adopted member of the Mendota Mdewakaton Tribal Community. The CCHS is proud to be able to offer the exhibit Akta Dakota, To Honor the People. There is no charge to visit.