A lot can change in 47 years and the Rocky Boy Pow-Wow is no exception.
This powwow has carried on longer than many celebrations in this area, but there are still people who participated in the beginning days of the event who are still attending or even participating to this day.
Jonathan Windy Boy, in the days before serving on the Chippewa Cree Business Committee and as a lawmaker in the Montana state Legislature, was involved in powwows at a very young age. Windy Boy, now a Democratic senator, initially experienced powwows at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation then at the first Rocky Boy powwow in 1964, back when it was called Rocky Boy’s Indian Days.
Like many, his interest in the powwows was almost hereditary, something passed down from his grandfather through his father and uncles, who all not only participated in local powwows but also would travel the country performing at similar celebrations.
Before following his predecessors into singing with their group the Haystack Ramblers, Windy Boy was a dancer, achieving renown throughout the country.
A comment on a Youtube video of Windy Boy grassdancing in Suffern, N.Y., in 1992 calls him the Michael Jordan of grassdancing.
Developing those skills took years and dozens of powwows’ worth of practice. Windy Boy said he has seen many changes in the powwow in his 50 years of participation.
For one, the prizes were much more modest and the dancer’s motivation was simpler.
“It was more fun than anything, ” Windy Boy said. “The prize was probably five bucks or a blanket or something. ”
He said he saw the prizes grow through the 1970s and ‘80s to take over the powwow. At this weekend’s powwow, prizes of between $300 and $10,000 for first place will be distributed in 13 categories.
The powwow was more of “a celebration of coming together, gift-giving ceremonies, name-giving ceremonies, ” Windy Boy said.
Lloyd Top Sky was another early attendee and participant in those early powwows.
He was born on Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation before he moved away for a few years then returned full-time in the mid-’70s, but he and his family often returned to participate in events over the years, he said.
Top Sky has since gained a wealth of knowledge about the history of the events and American Indian culture in general, which he shares as an adjunct professor at Montana State University-Northern.
According to Top Sky, the cultural event’s development in the 1960s was a rebirth of what were originally spiritual practices after decades of dormancy brought on by government and Christian leaders attempts to bring Native Americans away from their culture and into mainstream white culture.
“It became a social function to bring Native Americans back together again after being idle for a while, ” Top Sky said.
“And now these circles still survive the tremendous act of trying to destroy our culture. If you come to Rocky Boy in the first week of August you’ll see a living culture. ”
Now powwows bring thousands of people together to learn about local traditions and culture and to better understand each other.
With support from the thousands of participants and spectators who still flock from across the continent to Rocky Boy for that August celebration, the culture is alive and well today.