The “Buffalo and the People” gallery of the Plains Indian Museum, Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
German grandparents visit the Plains Indian Museum with their American family
By Katie Jackson
A memorable Monday
On a typical Monday, you can find me playing fiercely competitive games of skat with other grandmothers at a café on the outskirts of Berlin. But today wasn’t a typical Monday. I couldn’t tell if it was the hypnotic cadence of the beating drums or the light reflecting off the mirrors on the dancers’ dresses—or the combination of the two—that had me feeling relaxed and far from strategic. My husband, Klaus, was on my right, and our daughter, Heidi, and our two older grandchildren were on my left. Heidi’s husband, Scott, was digging for a favorite teddy bear in the compartment of a parked stroller carrying our newest grandchild, Jenna.
The captivating dancers and lively music mesmerized everyone, even the baby. Her eyes were glued to the screen. We weren’t at the latest Broadway show or a routine dance recital; we were in a museum—a lively one at that—where we stood in front of several life-sized screens brought to life by the sounds and sights of colorful parades of Plains Indians. It was déjà vu because just the day before we had experienced a real powwow—in person.
Celebrating in style
Approximately 24 hours and 5,000 miles after we kissed our cats goodbye and left our flat in Berlin, Klaus and I found ourselves in Cody, Wyoming. We had come to the famous Wild West to celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary with our daughter and her family, who call Northern California home. My thoughtful husband, ever the history buff, carefully planned this trip. He thought it was more than fitting to include the 35th Annual Plains Indian Museum Powwow on our itinerary. “Darling,” he had promised, “It’s an event unlike anything we’ll ever see in Europe.”
Dancers in traditional dance regalia at the Plains Indian Museum Powwow.
Now, from our front-row seats at the Powwow, I could see he was right. “Look at all those tänzers!” observed seven-year-old Emma, who was adamant about using her German vocabulary with us. Dressed in colorful head-to-toe traditional regalia, they were hard to miss. Despite the thick fabrics, decorative fringe, elaborate headdresses, and dangling bells, the dancers seemed to have mastered the art of moving gracefully—and at an impressive speed.
Native arts and customs
“I should play this music when I’m teaching my students about tempo,” said Scott. He’s a music teacher, so naturally he was fascinated with the drums. He had done some research before our visit and explained that the drums were handcrafted from logs and animal hides. Meanwhile, Heidi was quite taken with the design of the cradleboards, which were made with similar materials. “These are beautiful,” she observed as she admired the beadwork on a cradleboard carried by a friendly woman seated next to us. “But I’m glad I have a stroller,” she added. We all laughed—knowing full well that she was referring to her ability to tote around her purchases in the stroller when she went shopping.
Later, as we strolled the grassy Powwow grounds, we spotted the Learning Tipi next to the arena. Klaus was fascinated with how something so tall could be struck down and moved with relative ease. Inside, we met another friendly woman who told us the Great Plains clothing was hand sewn by women in the tribe. We shot lots of photos of Emma as she tried on the regalia—the fancy moccasins, the jingle dress, and the hair ornament—all the while soaking up tales of beads, feathers, and bells. It was mind-blowing to imagine how many hours the women painstakingly invested in the ornate apparel moving with such finesse right before our eyes.
A dance for all ages
Then, we met a group of teenage boys in traditional buckskin regalia. I asked if we could take their pictures, and they happily obliged. Soon after, I caught sight of them as they joined their fellow dancers. I remembered admiring them and I was happy to learn they were just as hospitable and talented as they were handsome.
But our status as spectators was short-lived. The master of ceremonies invited the audience to join in a dance. Without hesitation, Emma took off toward the arena while surprisingly, five-year-old Adam, usually shy and guarded, followed. Klaus and I weren’t far behind. “Go on, you two, you’re not going to get a chance to do this in Germany,” shooed Heidi, while Scott immediately started taking photos of this pageantry. We must have looked silly out there in the arena trying to move our limbs in time with the unfamiliar rhythms. We joked that we hoped the judges wouldn’t disqualify us for being off the beat! But it didn’t matter; it was fun. Yes, there were older men dancing too. Men and women even older than us!
Looking back and looking forward
That was what we loved about the powwow. It was family friendly in a way that transcended generational divides. No wonder it had been a tradition for hundreds of years, and no wonder American Indian families were so proud and loyal. Even the finest family reunion couldn’t compete with the entertainment factor, delicious food (we must have devoured 20 fry breads among the seven of us), and overall sense of unity that made the Powwow so extraordinary.
“Does this mean it’s over?” asked Emma as the final drumbeat faded into the evening a few hours later. “Yes,” her grandfather responded as he put a hand on her shoulder, “But this is just the beginning of our trip. We have another fun surprise planned for tomorrow.”
Family values are universal
A visitor in Plains Indian Museum immersed in the “Reservation House,” a replica of Standing Bear’s home.
“Buffalo Bill?” asked Adam as we pulled into the Buffalo Bill Center of the West the next day. It wouldn’t be the first time we heard “that’s a funny name” that day. The first exhibit we came to in the Center’s Plains Indian Museum was a replica of Standing Bear’s square home. Nearby was the Hidatsa Earth Lodge where we read a quote from Buffalo Bird Woman. Unusual names aside, the museum was a remarkable, interactive representation of Plains Indian culture. Adam lost count while tallying up the number of bear claws embellishing the ceremonial necklace on display, and Emma embraced the challenge of deciphering copies of ancient pictographs.
“Display, celebration, solidarity,” said Scott, reading from a museum sign explaining the significance of the powwow as a social gathering. Those three words could not have been more accurate. It was exactly what we had experienced the day before. It was what we were looking to achieve on our vacation in the states. Celebrating our anniversary, displaying our love and admiration for our family, and finally, renewing our sense of unity—something that didn’t diminish when our daughter moved to the U.S., changed her last name, and started a family of her own.
Here we all were, in a museum in Cody, Wyoming—far from Northern California and even farther from Germany. But somehow, we had never felt more at home. The soundtrack to this stateside vacation would be spirited singing mixed with the beating of drums and best of all, the countless danke schöns coming from our grandkids and their parents. In turn, Klaus and I silently thanked the Plains Indians. After all, it was their powwow tradition that set the tone for our trip.
Experience a Powwow Dance during your visit to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.