By Hannah Many Guns
During Easter weekend, brothers and sisters of Alberta Blackfoot reservation Siksika Nation came together during a celebratory pow-wow. The celebration was held in Siksika’s northern flats at their great pow-wow arbour. In the past, the nation held pow-wow’s at many different locations, including the Blackfoot Crossing along the Bow River where the Treaty 7 was signed back in 1877.
“That’s where we had our pow-wow before for a lot of years,” says journeyman drummer Skip Wolfleg. “It kind of moved around. In the beginning, we’d have pow-wows in old halls, a person’s house, even a barn, and this was because we weren’t allowed to actually sing our songs or pow-wow.”
Back then, there was no toleration for exhibition of traditional culture. “So y’know, we kind of went behind closed doors, kinda’ went underground. Up until about the seventies, or late sixties, then we were allowed to come out. This is when we started having different areas,” said Wolfleg.
This going-behind-closed-doors way the Blackfoot people carried themselves conserved many of their traditions. Without these kinds of efforts the ways of the Blackfoot people may have been completely wiped out by residential schooling systems and westernized law and regulation.
“Back in the early 1900s because of the Blackfoot Confederacy, we are lucky enough to have all our native traditions still active as of today,” says Troy Delaney of the Blackfoot Blood Tribe.
Delaney is a seasoned Chicken Dancer, which is a dance indigenous to the Blackfoot people. “Over the years, there have been many adaptations, and a lot of things happening in the world,” says Delaney about the Chicken Dance. “The dance almost got wiped out. But because of the language, because of the songs, because of the rattles that we dance with, and all the prayers that we have, we are lucky enough to still have it a part of our ways.”
He wears light blue and yellow traditional wear adorned with beadwork of the prairie rose. The rose is also along his head roach, which is lined with strands of beads that dangle along the ridge of his brow, hanging over his eyes. Fine peasant feathers line his skull, curving down his back into at a bustle of feathers at his tailbone.
I ask him to tell me more about the Chicken Dance. “If you ever see a real Chicken Dance – his footwork – he’s actually trying to impress the woman. In other word, he’s saying he wants the woman to be his spouse. Me and my brother, we dance proud for our wives. We dance proud for our people. We’re lucky enough we still have our women. The women are most important in the Blackfoot nation. They treat us with the most respect, and also, we treat them with the most respect. So when we dance, we bring them the joy of watching their spouse dance.”
I also ask Wolfleg to speak about what he knows about the Chicken Dance. “Sometime over our history, they say that the dance and songs were given to our people. It’s kind of like a show-off dance. What’s happening is that the male prairie chicken is trying to impress female prairie chickens out on the plains by doing these different fancy steps. It’s a neat thing to watch. We’re basically just imitating the mating ritual of the prairie chickens out there. It was given to the Blackfoots long ago, and for some reason it made us powerful and made us many. In a sense, you can say the dance and song promotes fertility.”
According to Blackfoot legend, the dance, known in the Blackfoot language as Kitokipaaskaan, came about long ago when a young Blackfoot man went out hunting on the prairies. He was hungry, and hadn’t had any food to eat for a while. He’d searched and searched, and then finally he came across some birds dancing in the tall grass. In a hungry haste, he shot an arrow at one of the birds, killing it instantly. Eager to eat, the young man brought the bird back home, cooked it, and fed himself and his family. That night, the man had a peculiar dream. In this dream, the spirit of the bird that he’d killed, which was a prairie chicken, came to him. The bird asked the young man why he had killed him, to which he replied: “I needed to feed my family”.
The prairie chicken then gave the man an ultimatum. After demonstrating the dance he was doing before he was killed, the prairie chicken told the man that he must go out and teach all the people this exact dance. If he did not do this, this prairie chicken vowed that he would come back and kill the young man. The man did so, and this is how the sacred Prairie Chicken Dance came about. (Story adapted from Blackfoot Crossing website).
The Siksika Easter pow-wow had an entire round dedicated to Chicken Dancing, and even a special dance-off between Chicken Dancers and Traditional Dancers. It was amazing to see the different adaptations of the dance, traditional wear, and see men from toddler to elder take part in the ritual. Between rounds, elders would tell stories of the dance, proudly honoring the Prairie Chicken Dance that is so integral to Blackfoot tradition.