COUNCIL GROVE — Washunga Days, the annual event in this historic town of 2,200 halfway between Manhattan and Emporia, is full of food, live music, crafts, a 5K run and other trappings of a typical summer festival.
But the heart and soul of Washunga Days is the powwow hosted by the Kaw Nation, the people native to this part of the Flint Hills.
The intertribal gathering began Friday evening, drawing members of many American Indian tribes from Kansas and other states for a weekend of dancing, singing, socializing and contests.
People gathered to watch in a large circle on the lawn of the Kaw Mission Historic Site. Following some words of welcome by the master of ceremonies, Kaw elder Luther Pepper, and a ceremonial entrance by the American Legion Post 5 out of Emporia, the dancers gathered for the grand entry.
In the center, five men sat around a large drum and played and sang. Others entered, wearing full regalia to represent their various tribes.
The clothing ranged from simple dresses to elaborate ensembles with bright colors, mirrors fringe and feathers. Many of the men had bells around their calves or ankles.
Some wore a roach — a type of headdress made with porcupine or other animal hair that looks like a mohawk — while others had headbands or otter fur turbans. Of course, the Washunga Days Kaw Princess, Merandah Kekahbah, wore a crown.
The dancers began by moving side by side in two concentric circles, the men on the inside and the women on the outside. More freeform dances followed as the sun set - some for children only, some for just women or men.
Karen Wahwasuck, of Mayetta, who is Apache and Potawatomi, was selling beaded jewelry at the event. She said she has come to the Washunga Days Powwow at least five times.
“It helps keep our culture alive,” she said. “We want our kids to be proud to be Indian. This helps keep our kids interested.”
Plus, it’s a chance to visit with friends. “Indians love to sit and talk, tell stories,” she said.
She added that powwows like this one are just a taste of of American Indian culture for the people who come to watch.
“We’re like icebergs,” she said. “This, what you see here is just a sample. There are a lot of things people don’t see: ceremonies, dances, etc.”
Through the Washunga Days weekend, there would be contests for various categories of dance, as well as for traditional dress.
Men compete in grass, straight and fancy dancing categories. Women compete in traditional dancing and buckskin and cloth dancing. There are also competitions for regalia.
Tim Robinson was to compete in the men’s golden age division of the straight dancing competition, which he said was a simpler style of dance, a “gentlemen’s dance” with no bustle and lighter regalia.
Robinson said he and his family go to powwows like these almost every weekend. He said most are three-day events like this one, starting Friday evening and wrapping up Sunday.
“You kind of make friends, so it’s nice to maybe see somebody you haven’t seen for a while,” he said. “You’re making new friends, seeing old friends.”
Robinson, who is originally from Macy, Neb., but now lives in Lawrence,
is a member of the Omaha tribe — though the traditional spelling is a bit different. He asks his son, Junior, a recent graduate of Haskell Indian Nations University, to write out the traditional spelling of the tribe’s name on this reporter’s notebook. The proper name is UMOnHOn, he said, meaning “against the current.”
Robinson and his wife, Susan, said powwows are a good way to keep traditions alive. And they hope that those who come to watch the performances can take something from them, too.
“I hope people gain a little bit of understanding, maybe a little bit more respect,” Susan said. “People know what they see on TV and what they learn in history class, but there’s so much more.” She said people tend to lump all groups of American Indians together, when they’re really very different. They come from different areas, wear different clothes and often have entirely different customs and styles of dance.
She said she hopes people feel comfortable coming up and asking questions.
“Kids are really good about coming up and asking question,” she said. “Kids are brave. But I’d rather people come up and talk to us. If you ask a stupid question, I’ll tell you.”
Artist Arthur Short Bull, a Lakota artist who lives in Topeka, was selling watercolor prints of buffalo, wolves and landscapes in a tent at the powwow.
He said he was attending the Council Grove event for the first time in eight years. But he said he got to know some members of the Kaw Nation in 2001 and became interested in the tribe.
“I always say, the Lakota, everybody knows who we are,” he said, mentioning the movie “Dances with Wolves.” But he discovered that nobody really knew about the Kaw, and at the time, the tribe’s population was declining.
He met the only person who spoke Kansa, the tribe’s language. And around that time, he said, the last full-blooded Kaw died.
“It was kind of a mystery tribe,” he said.
He decided to try to help educate people about the Kaw. His partner made educational boards to teach people about the tribe, and he brought them out again to display at the Council Grove powwow.
“It was the oldest tribes, and one of the few that was truly native to this area,” he said.
He said he hopes events like this one help to spread the culture and traditions of the Kaw Nation, as well as those of other American Indian tribes.