On the floor of Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum, Native American children dressed in full regalia run off steam before the grand dance at the Pah-Loots-Pu Powwow this Saturday night in April. One of them is Red Bear McCloud, the 5-year-old son of arena director Russell McCloud, seated at the announcer’s platform in jeans and a crimson wind jacket. Father looks on at son unhurriedly. The grand dance is scheduled for 6 p.m., an hour away, but McCloud knows it will most likely be later. Always factor in Indian time—about half an hour more than what’s advertised.
“I grew up going to powwows,” McCloud says. He was about Red Bear’s age when he went to his first one; his uncle made his first outfit, and his father taught him to dance. He won competitions at powwows. He met his wife, Thea, at a powwow; they married on April 4, 1996, the Friday before a powwow. His first year at WSU in 1997, both he and Thea were head man and head woman at the Pah-Loots-Pu Powwow. And now, at 24, McCloud is running the powwow, as he has for four years. When he’s not at powwows, McCloud works as a timber sales officer for the Yakama Nation, which gave him the full-ride scholarship to come to WSU. After he graduated last year with his bachelor’s degree in forest management, he returned to the tribe to give back the time he spent on his education.
Dancers, family, and friends greet McCloud constantly. A younger sister, Kay Lynn, wants him to answer a question, comes back minutes later to ask him something else. A friend pursuing her master’s at WSU gives him a hug. While she talks to McCloud about her son going into the Army, Kay Lynn returns, questionless this time, stands behind McCloud and plays with his hair, plaited in two long braids going down his back. This is what McCloud loves most about the powwow.
“The whole purpose is to celebrate family, visit with old friends, meet new ones, and to recruit, to let others know there are Native Americans at WSU,” he says. “For the past five years, we’ve held the largest student-organized event on campus, and we’re one of the smallest organizations on campus.” In fact, 50 tribes came for the Pah-loots-Pu from North Dakota, Minnesota, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, Oregon, Idaho, and even Canada.
Dancers begin to converge on the coliseum floor to prepare for the grand dance. As one woman braids the hair of a man seated in front of her, a Native American emcee who sounds like the “Voice of the Cougars” makes a few announcements to spectators about crafts to purchase, photo taking, and a vehicle whose headlights are on in the parking lot. “I don’t know what old Indians did without hair dryers,” he says, spying the hair preparations.
McCloud gives the high sign for the grand entry to start. A multicolored sea of feathers and flying fringes flows into Beasley as the dancers begin their circular dance to the sound of drums that reverberate through the concrete stands. Gold and silver bells on the women’s costumes flash but don’t ring. They whisper. I ask a young woman beading with her sleeping baby in a traditional baby carrier what the bells are made of. She says Copenhagen lids. Another woman tells me each bell represents a prayer. Whispered prayers in Copenhagen lids. The sacred in the ordinary.