The essence of Yakama people is nature, song, and dance. Stories have been told about the beginning of time, when only the animals inhabited the earth. They too had songs and dance. So, the origin of powwow in the northern Plateau area of the Pacific Northwest is based upon a foundation laid by nature.
As time moved forward, and the Creator placed the first humans upon the land, they were given songs and responded with dance. Although these dances were not of the modern kind called powwow, they resembled some of the movements you see in the powwow circle today. The regalia given by the deer, the eagle, the porcupine, the otter, and other animals are still worn at powwows.
First, the people were given songs and dances for the worship of the Creator, which are performed during the Wá́ashat, the Yakama longhouse religious ceremonies. They honored the coming of the foods—Salmon, Roots, Huckleberries—to the area, celebrating on the day of the Creator, Sunday. These songs and dances are still active today. Boys and girls are trained at a young age keep to the rhythm of the drumbeat (the drum’s heartbeat) in order to nurture inside them belief in the Wá́ashat lifestyle. Through dancing, the work of their bodies, children are taught to serve their elders, their families, and their people. After the song-and-dance part of the Wá́ashat service is over, all participate in preparing a meal, honoring each food by serving it in the seasonal order in which nature provides it. These Wá́ashat practices later evolved in the intertribal powwow circle.
Like Native people in other areas, Yakama gathered, feasted, sang, and danced. The gatherings sometimes lasted for weeks, with big encampments. During an encampment, someone might share a song and a dance they had received through a dream or prayer, or from nature. These became social dances, which imitate animals and plants such as Deer, Salmon, Butterfly, Swan, Rabbit, Willow, or Eagle Feather. Other social dances represent events, such as a first successful hunt, a first catch of salmon, a welcome to returning warriors, or a farewell to those leaving. Long before powwows, the people celebrated all aspects of life in the form of song and dance.
When Yakamas began to take part in the intertribal powwow circle, new song and dance interpretations evolved. At powwows, they shared these versions with other tribes, and children adapted quickly to the new movements. Although the tribe began to use the ways of the powwow circle to celebrate, they kept the regalia they had used in the Wáashat lifestyle. Women continued to wear the tł’píip or wingdress, a cloth version of the deerhide dress that had been worn by women in the northern Plateau area. The dress design is unique to the Wá́ashat ways. In the powwow circle Yakama women and girls today might wear this dress for Fancy Shawl or Traditional dances, going from a daytime Wá́ashat service to an evening powwow, adapting the same regalia to both dancing events.
One of young Yakama girls’ favorite dances is the Fancy Shawl Dance, which is performed in the powwow circle. This dance is similar to a Yakama social dance called the Butterfly Dance, in which the girls imitate butterflies leaving the cocoon. Both the Fancy Shawl and Butterfly songs are fast and lively. The girls dance wearing their tł’píip and a few extra beaded items, with shawls draped over their shoulders and arms. You can hear the bells or shells on some of the dresses keeping rhythm as they dance. The girls, gracefully interpreting butterflies fluttering in a meadow of flowers, dance in both the Yakama social-dance circle and the powwow circle. With dance, they demonstrate beautiful teachings from the Yakama lifestyle.
Spread across Canada and the United States, each tribe in the powwow circle has interpreted these dances differently. Yet although they are from many different Native nations and were unknown to one another for thousands of years, their beliefs and ways are similar. As Natives of their lands, they all value water, food, and culture. Many of the dance interpretations shared in the powwow circle are, as they say, related. The communities have come to share with and respect one another through what is now called the powwow circle.
Zelda Winnier (Yakama) is a high school teacher of Sahaptin language and culture on the Yakama Reservation. As a sister, aunt, mother, and grandmother, she has been an educator all her life. She advocates working with youth to help them understand the world views of two societies and their roles in Ichishkiin (Yakama) culture as a key way of guiding the young people towards healthy choices for the future of the Yakama Nation. Winnier has learned from elders who have demonstrated the cultural lessons of everyday life: gathering traditional foods as well as practicing song, dance, and ceremonial protocol. She would like to encourage all nations to live through the teachings of their cultural wisdom.
When young Yakama girls dance the Fancy Shawl Dance during a powwow, they usually wear a tł’píip, or wingdress. This is a cloth version of the deerhide dress that was worn by women in the northern Plateau region. It is also what Yakama girls wear during Wáashat, or longhouse religious ceremonies. Unlike an older girl’s Fancy Shawl Dance outfit, which is brightly colored and intentionally flashy, a little girl’s tł’píip is somewhat more subdued. The components, however, are similar to a young woman’s outfit in that they include a dress and matching shawl; traditional leggings and moccasins; and fur hair ties.
2011. Made by Zelda Winnier. Toppenish, Washington. Fur, shell, dentalium, beads, hide, leather, plastic and glass beads and pendant, synthetic fabric and fringe, ribbon. Photograph by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. 26/8788
Fancy Shawl Dancer, Tawny Adson (Dine-Dakota Sioux), National Museum of the American Indian Living Earth Festival, 2012. Photo: Smithsonian Institution, NMAI, Ernest Amoroso