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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Howie and the Trenton Pow Wow

Monday, December 17, 2012

(Photo)
Sioux dancers.
(Courtesy photo)
During the summer of '48 I joined a crew of student and professional Anthropologists from the University of Nebraska who were unearthing an Upper Republican Indian site on Prairie Dog Creek, east of Alma. We were hurrying to complete work on that ancient village before the lake covered that site. Our crew was distinguished by interesting and colorful characters -- none more so than a senior student, Jim (Howie) Howard.

Howie was a fellow who was born 100 years too late. He would dearly have loved to have been born as an Indian in the 19th century. As it was, he did everything he could to correct that mistake. He was a walking encyclopedia on the Plains Indians, particularly the Sioux, whose reservation was close to his home in South Dakota. He was using his GI Bill to study Archaeology.

Howie was different. Some thought he was downright strange. Though he could be witty and engrossing as a storyteller, he was moody. He would sometimes sit silently for hours, staring into space, working out some sort of Anthropologic problem in his mind. Once, while we were in the field, Howie came down with a severe cold or flu. He immediately went off by himself and spent 24 hours in a small tent, isolated from the group without either food or water. During that day and night we could hear him softly beating on a small drum and singing eerie (Indian) songs. After that day of isolation he rejoined our group at breakfast. He was completely cured -- in a good mood, with a voracious appetite. His cure was miraculous, but he was evasive about it, vaguely mentioning Siouan rituals, and quickly changed the subject.

Though we worked hard during the day, unearthing artifacts, sorting and cataloguing our finds, there was leisure time in the evenings, around campfires, and the stories that the old timers told were spellbinding. But there was also time for Howie to teach us (mostly me) about Indian dances. Howie had participated in many Siouan dances, and had been designated by the one of the tribes as an honorary member. He even made his own costumes. He purchased his materials from the same sources as did the natives, and his headdresses were so well made that he could have had a full time job just making headdresses and selling them to Indians.

Howie had brought enough costume material to outfit both of us -- mine with a porcupine headdress, beaded vest, loincloth, bells, and moccasins. In the evenings we practiced our dances out behind the tents that made up the camp. Later we performed our dances at area celebrations. On at least two occasions we performed at the Friday night band concerts, before the people of Alma. On those occasions Howie used a paste to darken our skin, and he painted our faces. He said that the dances we did were ethnically correct. The old men at Rosebud had taught him. I guess he what he said was the truth. No one challenged our authenticity.

Toward the end of our stay at the Archaeology site near Alma, we heard that there was to be a large celebration at Trenton, west of McCook. The city of Trenton was celebrating the last great Indian battle in America -- referred to as "The Battle of Massacre Canyon," which had taken place just east and north of Trenton. The battle had involved Sioux and Pawnee warriors and descendants from both tribes had been invited to return to Trenton for the Pow Wow and had promised to come. A big Indian Dance was promised and there would be an afternoon ceremony where representatives from both the Pawnee and Sioux would meet to smoke the Pipe of Peace. It sounded like a most interesting occasion, especially for budding Anthropologists.

Unfortunately, I had committed to attending the wedding of an old college roommate on that weekend, so I had to decline Jim's invitation to accompany him to Trenton for the Pow Wow. This was unfortunate, because I was the one who had a car. At that time neither of us was acquainted with Nebraska, west of Alma, but Jim "needed" to attend the Trenton Pow Wow. There would be Indian friends of his from South Dakota and he should be there to support them -- and besides, any Indian Pow Wow was an important occasion to Jim. He was sure he'd have no trouble hitching rides -- both ways. He was a longtime enthusiastic hitch-hiker, from his days in South Dakota and the Army. (In 1948 hitch-hiking was quite common, even for girls -- much more than today. It was a simpler time; we were still suffering from a wartime shortage of cars, and I think people felt quite connected by the common wartime "help thy neighbor" bond that had united us during the war. We may have been na*ve, but we certainly were not as suspicious of strangers as now.)

I got back to our camp late on Sunday night, but Jim had not yet returned. We talked about his absence at breakfast on Monday, and John, the leader of our expedition, was quite put out at Jim's being AWOL, but no one was especially concerned about his safety. About 10 o'clock in the morning a local farm truck drew up into our camp, and out stepped Jim. He was not that easy to recognize. One eye was completely shut, and he was badly bruised around the head. His clothes were torn and dirty; he looked as if he had been dragged through the mud.

Little by little, over the next couple of days, Jim's story came out. He had indeed attended the Pow Wow at Trenton. It had been a wonderful experience for him. He knew several of the dancers and some of the Siouan Tribal Elders who had come along to take part in the Peace Pipe ceremony. That part of the weekend had been fine. But the Pow Wow had been just one part of the Trenton celebration. The town was packed with people who were there for a good time. A Carnival had been set up downtown, and there had been ball games at the athletic park west of town, where the Indian Pow Wow was also held. In the evening there was type of review, with pretty dancing girls, on a stage set up at the Ball Park, and other really fine acts. Other years had seen a recreation of Custer's Last Stand, with real Indians, daredevils, diving from high towers into shallow tanks covered with flaming gasoline, and other first-class acts.

In downtown Trenton there was non-stop food and entertainment. In the later evening there was a street dance at a downtown intersection, with a dance band from Omaha providing the music. But none of this was of real interest for Jim -- there were also various carnival games, for folks of all ages, including "games of chance." Jim confessed that he had a long time fascination with most forms of gambling, and from his days in the Army he felt that he had learned enough to be able to profit from "taking a chance."

One of the games that Jim had discovered was a type of "shell game." He had played the game before; and after watching for a time felt that he knew how to follow the manipulations of the shells, and could identify the location of the pea, which would win the bet.

At first Jim's system worked well, and he had won enough to pay for his trip. But he got greedy and stayed too long. He started losing, and then caught the operator "palming" the pea. He demanded his money be returned and became quite vocal, saying that he was going to the sheriff with his discovery. The operator calmed him down and promised to give his money back, but had to make the restitution away from the midway.

Jim and the operator moved down the street and into an alley. Instead of getting his money back, once they were in the alley Jim was set upon by a couple of cronies of the operator and quite thoroughly roughed up. He claimed that when he reported the incident to the sheriff he was quite summarily dismissed, despite his broken face.

To add insult to injury, he had spent most of the night at a truck stop waiting for a lift.

"I should have known better," he lamented. "It just seemed so easy at the time. I've been to a lot of Pow Wows, and most of them were better than that one. But I've never paid as high a price as I did for this one. Never again!"


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As a kid in the 50's my older brothers would take me to the pow wows in Trenton for the rides on the midway. I remember they buried the beef for the BBQ and it was very good. I remember the Indians but not the dancing girls, I'm sure a few of my brothers seen that though.

Speaking of South Dakota, there is a singer/comedian named Gary Muledeer who does a lot of Johnny Case songs. In his act he tells of growing up in South Dakota and the three things you will never hear in the foot hills of South Dakota. #1 Come in here honey Barbara Streisand is on PBS. #2 Would you like to cleanse your palate with ginger crystals before you try the bouillabaisse. #3 would you like three spoons with that dish of ice-cream.

-- Posted by Keda46 on Mon, Dec 17, 2012, at 10:21 PM


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By