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Patrick Springer, Published July 03 2013

South Dakota event one of nation’s oldest July 4 powwows

AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. – Gabriel Renville was an Army scout who knew something about how to navigate the rapidly changing world around him on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

The year was 1867, when the reservation was established under a treaty and when Renville was named the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribe’s first chairman.

It was a time when practicing American Indian religion and speaking the Dakota Sioux language were strictly forbidden.

Even something as seemingly innocuous as singing and dancing were banned, punishable by fines and jail time.

And therein lies a tale, one that has been re-enacted every July Fourth Independence Day for what now is the 146th year.

But the story today is largely forgotten, even among the thousands of American Indian singers and dancers who will gather here for the annual July 4 powwow to compete for thousands of dollars in prizes.

The event is billed as the oldest continuing event in South Dakota and one of the nation’s oldest July Fourth powwows.

The story of the powwow’s origin was passed down within the tribe, said Ed Red Owl, an elder and tribal historian.

Although the annual event, held at the powwow grounds near Agency Village, traces its continuous history back to 1867, an earlier July 4 dance took place near Fort Wads-worth, later known as Fort Sisseton, in 1864, Red Owl said.

That first observance took place at an Army scout encampment called Camp Surrender, a location where Dakotas would peacefully submit to reservation life.

The Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakotas, who were supposed to be getting acculturated as Christian farmers, noticed that the white soldiers and settlers celebrated July Fourth with relish.

At the fort, soldiers would fire the canons in a 21-gun salute as a tribute.

“The soldiers at Fort Wadsworth, Fort Sisseton, they would fire cannons, so the scouts asked if they could observe in their own way.”

Renville, as the chief scout, made the request: Could we join in the Independence Day celebration with some traditional singing and dancing?

“There was considerable oppression from the government,” Red Owl said. “They found a loophole. The Fourth of July gave them the opportunity.”

The reservation agent agreed, and what became an annual tradition was born, the Fourth of July Sisseton-Wahpeton powwow, or wacipi.

In the early years, however, the celebration was supervised by the reservation agent or a minister, Darrel DeCoteau said.

“Our Dakota religion was considered Paganistic,” said DeCoteau, who teaches Dakota studies at a tribal school and is a dancer himself. “It was against the law.”

Also, back in the late 1800s, reservation officials worried that large dances could be an incitement to go to war.

“That’s never really what it was about,” DeCoteau said, explaining that the communal dances are an ancient practice. “Our dances were a celebration.”

As recently as the 1950s, he said, about 40 people were arrested for attending an unsanctioned powwow, not associated with the permitted July Fourth celebration, DeCoteau said.

In fact, the prohibition against practicing native religion was not officially removed until 1978, when Congress passed the Native American Freedom of Religion Act.

Honoring the flag and military veterans is a prominent feature of the powwow, Red Owl and DeCoteau said.

The United States flag, along with the Sisseton-Wahpeton tribal flag and the Canadian flag, are presented by an honor guard and flown in the center of the powwow arena.

Also, the casket flags of deceased veterans are displayed in the powwow ring.

This year’s powwow will pay thousands of dollars in prizes for dancers and participants in associated events, including running races and a traditional moccasin game.

Thousands of people are expected to turn out for the four-day celebration, including dispersed members of the 13,000-member tribe back for a homecoming.

“You’re reuniting old friendships and making new friendships,” said Elias Mendoza, the tribe’s tourism coordinator.

Others come to compete in the powwow arena for cash prizes and prestige.

“The dancers do exceed 800 dancers,” Mendoza said. “That’s just dancers alone. They would range from the tiniest of tots to the older categories, the golden age, we call them.”

Some contestants travel the powwow trail from April through September, appearing at many dances around the country. Fourth of July powwows have become popular.

In years past, visitors at the Sisseton-Wahpeton powwow have included aborigines from Australia and Aztecs from Mexico, who performed their own traditional dances. Bus tours once were common.

“We do almost always get visitors from other countries,” Mendoza said. “We take a lot of pride in our culture and like to show it off.”

The pageantry of today’s powwow is something Gabriel Renville and his fellow scouts probably never could have imagined. But the memory of his contributions remains strong within the tribe.

After being appointed chief by the government, his people proclaimed Renville chief for life; he served until his death in 1892 at the age of 67.

Although of mixed-blood ancestry who once took up farming, Renville was a traditionalist who spoke Dakota instead of English. His Dakota name was Ti’wakan, translated as Sacred Lodge.

He was buried on a prairie bluff with a commanding view, about a mile south of the powwow grounds near Agency Village. As a former military scout, he is one of the veterans honored every Fourth of July.

If you go

What: Sisseton-Wahpeton Powwow

When: July 4-7

Where: Powwow grounds south of Agency Village, S.D., an hour and a half south of Fargo

Info: www.oyatetourism.com/events

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522