North Dakota: Heart of the matter

By Kelly Lynch

Kelly Lynch is treated to a display of native American culture, song and dance under the skies of the Great Plains.

The annual Powwow in Bismarck is a riot of colour and movement. Photo / Kelly Lynch
The annual Powwow in Bismarck is a riot of colour and movement. Photo / Kelly Lynch

Under a wide blanket of blue sky a tot no older than 2, his face painted with black stripes, discovers his chubby little legs can stomp. Crouching low, sticking out his butt, he copies his dad, rocking his shoulders, tassles flying. He is knee-high to the crowd throbbing to the fast, solid beat of 16 men working the drums combined with singing, wailing, jangling cowbells, clashing mirrors and jingling metal.

The tot dances till he drops, gets up and dances again. He's a warrior, at his first Powwow, in Bismarck, the state capital of North Dakota.

We're in the north, in the Great Plains of America, where mammoths and mastodons once roamed, home to Native American Lakota Sioux tribes such as Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. It is a riot of colour and movement as more than 70 Native American tribes, 1500 dancers, from nearby Canada and across the US compete over four days for the prize money.

Each day starts with a free-for-all dance around an arena. Dress is as varied as the dancing: traditional, jingle dress and modern.

From some in the circle, coloured ribbons flow, becoming emphatic as they spread their arms like wings and hop from foot to foot, others twist and whirl. A few are happy to walk with friends, chatting, but even then their bodies pulse to the beating drums, heads rocking rhythmically. The vibe is relaxed.

Buster, a respected judge, says, "They're dancing the dance of their hearts". Native American Indians decide what article they want to be and imitate its actions.

"The weed tumblers, dressed in long loose material strips, move like the grass blowing in the wind, others act like eagles." They believe everything, even a rock, has a spirit.

Competitors at the 45th annual United Tribes International Powwow held at the United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota. Photo / Kelly Lynch
Competitors at the 45th annual United Tribes International Powwow held at the United Tribes Technical College, Bismarck, North Dakota. Photo / Kelly Lynch

Judges position themselves near the dancers to score individual sections. Most importantly they watch the contestant's feet, their beat, how they start and finish their footwork to the drum. Dress is also a consideration: Buster says he looks at the detailing. The more intricately beaded moccasins can push the price of a pair up from $300 to $1000, a well-tailored traditional elk buckskin dress costs $3000.

Two hours drive west, in the small town of Medora, the Cowboy Hall of Fame details some of the sad history faced by North American Indians, but mostly it showcases their affinity with horses and mastery at riding. Some left the reservations to work on ranches and others became rodeo riders along with cowboys.

In summer, the large green leaves of cottonwood trees shade Medora's footpaths while its permanent population of 100 serves the scores of tourists keen for cowboy action. Primarily they come for pitchfork fondue - rib-eye steaks so large they're seared and cooked on pitchforks - followed by the Medora musical, good old-fashioned country and western singing and dancing at the Burning Hills Amphitheatre.

Behind the theatrical facades is a dramatic landscape matching that in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, its southern entrance two minutes from town.

In 1883, Teddy Roosevelt came to North Dakota to hunt bison; falling in love with the land he returned to buy and run a ranch for a while. He proudly credits that experience and the heart-warming people of North Dakota for giving him the courage to return to politics, later becoming America's 26th president.

Within the national park, Roosevelt's ranch remains in the Badlands - jutting, pyramid-like hills so named because Indians, cowboys and French fur trappers found them a devil to traverse. A loop road around the park takes two hours to drive, or longer depending on wildlife sightings. Bison feed on the plains, wild horses wander with white-tailed deer. Prairie dogs, a curious looking cross between a squirrel and a mouse, stand on dirt mounds yapping like puppies. Camping, hiking, horseriding and biking are all ways to take in the dramatic sandstone ridges and buttes.

The Maah Daah Hey Trail, a challenging 154km horse and mountain-bike ride, passes through the park. Jen and Loren, owners of Dakota Cyclery, specialise in biking tours and under another blue North Dakota sky I ride for an hour with Jen. Wild flowers grow at the trackside: prairie rose, echinacea and buffalo berries. The track's name derives from the Mandan Siouan language and translates to something surviving a long time that deserves respect - apt since the Badlands have been around for 70 million years.

Back in town, I call into Marquis de Mores Ice Cream Parlor. Its most popular ice cream, Bonny Tracks, is a swirl of peanut butter, caramel and chocolate chunks. In true US style, a single serving is three generous scoops. It tastes sweet and buttery. It's complicated in texture, rich and deeply layered - just like North Dakota.


Getting there: Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to San Francisco and LA with connections to Fargo on partner airlines.

Powwow is held Thursday to Sunday after US Labor Day weekend. has a wealth of information.

Further information: See North Dakota Tourism's website.

- NZ Herald

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