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Old 10-16-2007, 05:15 PM   #1
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the chicken dance..its my favorite

I saw a lot of neat things take place growing up on the powwow trail. At my very own reservation’s Arlee Powwow, I watched the prairie chicken dance emerge. I watched as our cousin tribe, the Spokane, also helped to resurrect the dying category. Every year, the Arlee powwow committee and a man named George Flett from Spokane rez would sponsor a prairie chicken dance special. Many men would enter the contest wearing grass dance outfits or take the bustle off of their traditional dance outfit and dance.
One year at Arlee Powwow, Guy Fox, a Spokane/Gros Ventre, entered the annual dance special wearing the prairie chicken outfit style that all chicken dancers wear nowadays. My mom told me that in the old days, that was how all of the outfits looked. It was new to me though. His outfit had a cape, side panels, and aprons. Instead of going completely old style by wearing nothing underneath those aprons, he opted for some black tights and a long-sleeved black shirt. As Ruben Littlehead, MC at the Sho-Ban Festival held in August, said, “Sometimes, men wear stretchy pants.”
Fox stood out amongst all of the other contestants and won first place that year. By the late 90’s, Guy Fox was known throughout Indian Country for chicken dancing. The category’s popularity spread and more men began to compete as chicken dancers. At many powwows, the chicken dance is its own category along with men’s fancy, traditional, and grass. No longer do chicken dancers have to compete with grass and traditional dancers, now they have their own category. If a powwow lacks a category, there is sure to be a huge special to honor the chicken dancers. To put it simply, the chicken dance is kind of a big deal and a crowd favorite.
Personally, it has been my favorite category since I saw it at the Arlee and Wellpinit powwows as a preteen. Salish people have stories about the dance and the song that goes with it. In fact, a lot of tribes have stories relating the chicken dance’s origins. For the most part, the chicken dance originated from a bird called the Prairie Chicken. There is a bird called the Greater Prairie Chicken, Lesser Prairie Chicken, and Sage Grouse. These birds belong to the Pheasant and Grouse family and these birds especially have a unique style of attracting a mate.
A dance ground, called a lek, is chosen. The male birds aren’t very colorful, but there is a colorful patch of orange or yellow-orange feathers on the neck. The males gather on the dance ground and the females stand on the outside to watch the males dance. Male prairie chickens truly dance by strutting, dipping, scratching, and spreading their wings in an effort to catch a female’s attention. A simple search on YouTube will show the prairie chickens dancing and it is really fascinating.
A long time ago, I can be certain that some Native from some tribe happened to see that sight, because there are stories about it! To see it today would be awesome, so I can imagine that it was pretty neat to see it way back then. Needless to say, Natives copied the dance from this bird. The reason for the bird’s dancing is the same for Natives dancing. The chicken dance is for the men to impress women. It’s a mating dance, not a war dance, like the men’s traditional style of dancing. In fact, chicken dance specials are judged by women for that reason. As Debbie Paul said at Spokane Riverfront Powwow last year, “We know good tail.”
For most chicken dance specials, dancing four songs is the minimum. To dance four songs in a row takes a lot of strength, stamina, and endurance. It’s no wonder that the best chickens are young men. Nowadays, the category’s popularity is extending to the teen, junior, and tiny tot boys. Or as I like to say, chicken nuggets. Some powwows, like the Sho-Ban Festival in Fort Hall, Idaho held a special specifically for the junior and teen chicken dancers. Rocky Boy’s annual powwow is known for inviting chicken dancers of all ages to participate and have included a separate category for the junior and teen chicken dancers. It is an awesome sight to see young boys dancing the chicken style because I remember it wasn’t long ago that the category was almost non-existent.
Looking back on the rise of the chicken dance, I’m proud to know that other Natives from around Indian Country acknowledge the Salish and Spokane tribe’s contributions to the growing popularity of the old style of dancing. Like Alec Quequesah said at this past year’s Arlee Celebration, “It wouldn’t be Arlee Powwow without the chicken dance.”
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