Sopchoppy Intertribal Pow-wow

Yesterday I drove south to Sopchoppy, Florida, and attended the second of a three-day intertribal pow-wow.  After a long rural drive, the event took place deep within a city park area, and was largely isolated.  It was a great musicultural experience, and I wanted to spend a few minutes writing down my observations. I know very little of Native American music/culture, so I’ll probably skip out on a lot of emic terminology.  Sorry in advance!

The moment I opened my car door, I heard a drum and followed the sound. I walked through just as it was breaking for dinner (buffalo burgers, fry bread, french fries, corn on the cob, steak, veggies, & Indian tacos). I spent some time eating, looking at vendors, and looking around.  During the break, three people alternated on flutes of different sizes and timbres. Sometimes, two people would play together. This was really lovely as one person would lead with the melody and the other would copy it just a beat or two behind, sometimes filling in ornamentation.  Each flautist had a wireless mic attached to their bodies, so the tranquil music they were playing was a  soothing soundtrack.  One man who played a wide flute sang as he played, producing multiphonics and giving the effect of two people playing. I enjoyed this the most, as I’ve never heard it done on a flute before.

Right as the sun went down, I took witness to a Grand Entry (a parade of dancers). It consisted of several songs played by four different types of drums (males & females were segregated by drum), including an entry song played by those at the Unity Drum, a flag song, a memorial song for military veterans, and other various songs for specific tribes and sections within each tribe (such as a song for the female Shawl Dancers, and traditional men’s/women’s songs).

Set up as a sacred circle marked by bales of hay, dancers moved clockwise within it, making a circuit twice or more.  They always entered and left the circle on the east side, where the sun rises. The drummers remained outside of the circle under a tent just next to it on the west side.

As it was an intertribal event, the dances themselves varied greatly.  Vocalization/singing occurred with all songs (by the drummers), however the language and genre alternated according to tribe and song type. Of particular interest was a dance for young boys/teenagers in full regalia where money was thrown at the ground as they danced. Perhaps an offering for them to continue their path, and/or continuing to add intricacies to their regalia? The only thing I can relate it to are Flambeau carriers in New Orleans – [usually] poor men who carry lit torches to illuminate floats and [often] Mardi Gras Indian processionals.

Traditionally, you’d throw quarters at the ground where the Flambeau carriers walked. However due to the dangerous torches (and the fact that the carriers are usually inebriated beyond belief in the parades), it’s now customary to hand them the quarters. Notably, since Katrina I’ve seen this happening less and less and too often, people let them pass unnoticed. Often, parade krewes will hire homeless men to carry the torches, which is a dangerous job, however they know they’ll make some money by doing it.

Again – this is a far step from what I observed at the event this weekend, however it did cause me to reminisce.

Some observations:

I was very surprised at the strong American patriotism shown formally through regalia, through the veteran’s dance, and with waving flags.  There was an announcer walking us non-Natives through what was going on (about 10 of us), and he mentioned again and again how proud he was to live in a country where he was allowed to participate freely in these kinds of ceremonies. This seemed a bit odd to me considering the government’s history with our tribal nations.

I was equally surprised at the amount of republican Native Americans present (with bumper stickers like “Palin Nation“). I can’t imagine that the right-wing agenda is compassionate toward Native Americans, although I haven’t looked it up.

Everyone was very nice and receptive to questions. It was so nice to see how many young kids and teenagers were taking part in the ceremonies. Equally impressive to me were the amount of kids who seemed to really understand and execute the traditional dances well.  That there is a great deal of pride in their Native heritage is very apparent, and the energy of it was astounding.  There are so many other traditions being lost as they fail to be passed down. It was great to see that at least here, that was not the case (although it’s only a small sample, of course).

**As noted before, this event occurred at sunset. My iPhone doesn’t take good photos without a good amount of light. Likewise, there were several parts of the event where we were not allowed to take photos.

Overall, this was a great experience, and I wished I had brought a tent. I enjoyed the musical aspects, the food, and the storytelling.  If I’m around here next year (and I should be), then I’ll definitely return.

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