Dancers, organizers and family members from tribes across South Dakota and surrounding states celebrated the 47th annual USD Wacipi April 6 and 7 in the indoor comfort of the Sanford Coyote Sports Center.
The weekend kicked off with the Tiospaye Student Council hosting its ninth annual Native Alumni Dinner Friday night, April 5, in the Muenster University Center (MUC) ballroom on the University of South Dakota campus.
The 47th annual Wacipi’s grand entry was Saturday at 1 p.m. The event wrapped up at 5 p.m. Sunday.
Tiospaye, a student organization for Native American students at USD, was the main organizer of the weekend event.
Mekko Bear Killer, a member of the Tiospaye Executive Board and a co-chair of the Wacipi, was busy during the weekend helping to make sure everything was running smoothly.
My role is like with any other event we hold on campus, said Bear Killer, a senior studying social work at USD. “I’m a coordinator and I bring people together to help me out and see what’s going on, trying to find out what could be better, what can be fixed. We’re just trying to fit the people’s needs.”
Bear Killer, who is from the small town of Allen on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said the Wacipi is a way for USD to reach its goal of being more inclusive.
“The University of South Dakota wants to promote inclusiveness and diversity in our culture, so us doing this powwow is helping the university promote that message a little bit more,” he said. “Vermillion's powwow has been around for over 47 years.
“We've had from slow starts over that time. We went from around 100 dancers to maybe 500 at one point, but each year we're growing and growing,” Bear Killer said. “Pretty soon it will become one of the greatest hits around the powwow and native community.”
He estimated Saturday that there were close to 2,000 people in attendance at the USD Wacipi.
“One of the fascinating things about a powwow is that it is an event for the community, but we host people from not just this region or this state,” Bear Killer said. “We host people from Nebraska, we have a vendor here from Texas and we have people from all over the nation coming in.
A portion of those people in attendance are students themselves,” he said. “The rest are people from all over and some of them have history here and it's always good for them to come back.”
People from Vermillion and surrounding communities were welcome to attend last weekend’s event. Bear Killer said a Wacipi, in many ways, is not much different from a social event that’s traditionally held in Vermillion each year.
“It's like Vermillion's Ribs, Rods and Rock 'n Roll. It's just a time of gathering and music and enjoying each other's presence,” he said. “That's what the Lakota word Wacipi means – that's our traditional name for a powwow.”
The Wacipi can also be a time of reunion for many of the participants.
People who come here from all over have history here in Vermillion. It's always good for them to come back and reunite, he said. “Sometimes, their old professors are still living here or sometimes they have family that lives in Vermillion, so it's a time of family reunion.”
Several different styles of traditional dance were demonstrated on the floor of the sports center.
The men's traditional dance symbolizes a battle or the story of a hunt. The men's grass dance is said to have come from the past, when dancers were sent in first to stomp down long grass to make a clearing for the other dancers during a powwow.
Men's fancy dancing became a traditional part of Wacipis in the late 1900s. Boys and young men, who wear brilliantly colored bustles and dance regalia, prefer this style.
The women's traditional dance is simple in appearance, but plays a very important symbolic role. The dancers move their feet to the beat of the drum to represent the heartbeat of mother earth, to heal the world.
Many of the women and young girls wore jingle dresses. The small jingles that adorn their clothing, made of twisted tin, represent waves of water and thunder as they performed what is known as a healing dance.
It was impossible to not notice the female dancers who performed in the style commonly referred to as fancy. These dancers wore elaborately beaded dance regalia, covered by long, decorated, fringed shawls. These Wacipi participants made efforts to resemble butterflies, spreading out their shawl-covered arms as they spun in tiny circles on the sports center floor.
“Wacipi stands for the circle and the gathering of people,” Bear Killer said. “We want people to come here and enjoy themselves and celebrate who they are and represent wherever they come from.”