The culture of Native American tribes are on spectacular display at one of America's biggest powwows, writes Kristin Edge
The beat of the drum is like a heartbeat.
It starts slowly with the 12 men seated around the drum striking it in unison. They start to sing, their eerie voices rising up, filling the air.
The beat increases and the drumsticks connect the singers to its power, which seems to consume your body and fills your chest with a thunderous vibration.
They strike the white hide of the drum with force, their voices crying out. They provide the beat for the dancers and create a dramatic atmosphere.
Thousands of competitors and spectators from around the world have converged on Bismark, North Dakota, for the United Tribes Technical College 50th Annual International Powwow.
The powwow, which each year attracts dancers from dozens of tribes across the US and Canada and awards more than US$100,000 ($151k) in prize money, is "one of the Top 10 powwows in the nation".
Competitive singing and dancing for prize money is a recent change to traditional powwow, but it does not distract from the passion and pride in the culture in each of the dancers, singers and drummers.
Originally held in spring to celebrate the beginning of life, they are now held throughout the year and are still an important part of Native American life.
The Bismark event pumps an estimated US$1million into the local economy. Powwows are, broadly, a celebration of Indigenous artistry, creativity and culture.
Drummer Mike Jourdain, slightly breathless and with a sheen of sweat across his forehead after such a rousing and physical performance, reckons "everyone feels the drums inside them".
A special bond
Mike should know - he's been playing for 16 years and in 1992, 1993, and 1994 his drum group Eya Bay, from northern Minnesota, took out the top prize at the powwow.
"It's about sitting together as one. It's a great feeling singing with each other and there is a special bond between us all," he says. "These songs tell stories of our people, our history and our culture."
He explains the group drum was made from elk hide in 1988.
"In our culture, the drum is treated with respect and is a sacred object. Nothing is placed on the drum and no one reaches across it. The drum has its own powerful spirit."
One of the traditional dancers following the beat of the drums in the men's division is Justin Young, of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes.
He's been coming to this powwow for 25 years and it's evident from the many hugs and handshakes he makes.
"I get to see family I don't see every day. I have relatives that show up from all over America . . . Dakota, Colorado and South Dakota. It's three days of celebration for us."
His father and grandfather have danced here before him. He's watched his daughters dance and now his granddaughters.
"I can remember my parents would get me ready and after I was done dancing Grandpa and Dad would tell me what I did right and what I did wrong and that's how I learnt.
"I never cared about winning. When we were growing up we were told 'dance for the sick and the elderly who can't dance any more'. Now when I am dancing I see them watching and it motivates me."
Sitting on a chair preparing his regalia for the Grand Entry, the 43-year-old youth prison security officer says dancing, for him, is a release from life.
"It's a chance to enjoy, to pray and be stress free."
Young carefully prepares his headdress and says the men's traditional dance is one of the oldest styles and is about the dancer telling a story.
It could re-enact a great hunting or war party, where the dancers play out the chase of the prey or enemy.
He says the designs on the regalia, which is never called a costume, are used to honour family, nation, or the spirit of their traditional name and bear direct relevance to tribal heritage.
His headdress is made from coloured deer hair and porcupine hair.
"For me the real significance are the top feathers, which were given to me in a ceremony. The golden eagle feathers were given to me by a Korean War veteran, who thought I had done enough in this life to earn them. Having an eagle feather is an honour."
The eagle flies higher than any other being
Native Americans have the highest respect for the eagle as they believe the eagle flies higher than any other being and carries prayers to the Creator.
Dancing at a powwow is demanding. Young says he will do about 16 dances a day.
The regalia worn by each dancer is determined by the category they are in and for the men there is the traditional, grass dance, fancy, chicken dance, and southern. For the women there are traditional, fancy, jingle dress, and southern.
As the competitors gather for the grand entry there are hugs and kisses as old friends reunite and new ones are made.
The first to enter the main arena are veterans carrying eagle-feather staffs, national state, tribal and veterans' flags. Visiting dignitaries and royalty are next, followed by the men's traditional dancers, then the remainder of the dancers. They move in a clockwise direction, swirling around a central flag pole.
Once all dancers are in the arena, a prayer is followed by a flag and victory song. Then it's one mass dance.
The more energetic dances of the young men contrast against the more controlled movements of the older women.
The children, some as young as 4, stomp their feet on the soft grass of the main arena and move with the rhythm of the drums.
The feathers and beads of their costumes create a rainbow of colours. The energy rises as the grand parade progresses and adding to the cacophony of noise is the jingle of small silver bells sewn to the dresses of girls and women.
Originally the jingles were made from chewing tobacco can lids, rolled into a cone, with each one representing a prayer.
The women are light on their feet, hopping or rocking, with their hands on their hips. Once the grand entry is complete the competitive dancing begins.
Outside the main area are plenty of vendors selling their traditional art, authentic jewellery, clothing, moccasins, music and books.
And the delicious smells wafting from the line of food vendors offering traditional foods and not so traditional cannot be ignored. Crispy fry-bread sandwiches with ground beef, lettuce and tomato are a tasty surprise.
Powwows are about resilience
Jason Morsette, special projects manager for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA Nation) on the Fort Berthold Reservation, says powwows are also about resilience.
"This is a chance for different tribes to come together and listen and watch different styles from all over because in history this was all ripped away from us."
In the 1830s, various pieces of American and Canadian legislation first forced Indigenous nations on to reserves and then attempted to ban and eliminate their culture. The US government banned dancing on reservations in 1921, labelling dancing and ceremonies "Indian Offences".
Powwows didn't end, but for most of the 20th century they were held in secret. Native Americans attempted to resist cultural assimilation by maintaining a connection to their indigenous traditions through dance and music and reserves created an environment where songs and dances quickly evolved.
"We can't rewrite history so we live for today by providing each and everyone who is here an opportunity to sing and dance, to visit one another from different tribes and keep friendships and traditions alive," Morsette says.
As the last drum beat is played, the last dance step made and the festivities draw to a close, hugs and handshakes are given with everyone vowing to return again to next year's celebration.
Five things to do in North Dakota
If you're there for Powwow, make sure you also check out these highlights:
1. Theodore National Park
A natural wilderness where herds of wild buffalo eat the sun-scorched grasses in summer and wade their way through snowdrifts in winter. When driving through the park, wild horses are also a common sight. The road through the southern unit of the park winds across the rolling, jumbled badlands with fantastic scenery in all directions. There are options for hiking and camping. The Painted Canyon, a flat desert landscape broken by petrified wood and rock formations, is a fantastic place to stop and take in the view. A great spot for a photo adventure - take your camera and explore. This is a must-see park.
You know you've hit the backblocks of America when people ride up to the local hotel, tie their horse to the hitching rail and head inside for a cold brew. But it's more than a one-horse town with the Centre of Western Heritage and Cultures, featuring the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. Make sure you book in to the Pitchfork Steak Fondue meal before you catch the Medora Musical - a stage show set in an amphitheatre. Horses are ridden on to the stage as part of the show. This is certainly a place where the spirit of the West is celebrated every day. And if you feel like swinging a club, the local golf course is in the top 100 for America.
3. Enchanted Highway
In a country known for "big is better" it's no surprise that on Interstate 94 you will see some of the biggest scrap-metal artworks in the world. A giant flock of geese, crickets and pheasants are some of the super-sized sculptures. Artist Gary Greff's massive Geese in Flight, is listed in the Guinness World Records as the world's largest scrap metal sculpture.
4. Indian Village
There is plenty of Native American culture to soak up in North Dakota. Knife River is a national historic site, where you can learn about the Northern Great Plains Indian Culture. There is a reconstructed earth lodge and at the visitor centre it's worth watching the 15-minute film that documents the village from the perspective of Buffalo Bird Woman. There are nearby trails that traverse the Missouri and Knife Rivers.
5. Badlands Dinosaur Museum, Dickinson.
What's a trip without at least one museum and this one is a goodie, with fossils and skeletons excavated from the local area. It boasts one of the world's finest triceratops skulls, skeletal casts and sculptures. Watch preparation of new discoveries. Take a peek in the fossil lab if you are keen to see staff removing rock surrounding fossils, broken pieces being glued back together again, or rubber moulds and casts being made. The lab has a sliding window that opens into the exhibit gallery, allowing museum visitors to talk directly to lab workers.
United Airlines flies from Auckland to Minot International Airport, North Dakota, via connections in San Francisco and Denver. united.com