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Native American Cowboys and Dancers

Courtesy Clarice Lakota

 A Lakota teen from Rapid City is the first person in the history of the Black Hills Pow Wow to introduce the “Hat and Boot Dance” into the annual event’s huge arena. The dance style pays homage to the long Lakota relationship with the horse along with their link to cowboy hats, chaps, lariats and boots…which traces back more than one-hundred years.

Misconceptions about cowboys and Indians have been a part of the public psyche for more than a century. From the belief that every American Indian could track a snake over rocky terrain to the assumption that any cowboy worth his salt could plug a silver dollar thrown in the air (sound of Colt revolver firing) …with the sun is his eyes, the American West is filled with legends.

In reality, most cowboys were just cowboys and most Indians were just Indians…except, of course, for those Indians who were cowboys.

Credit Courtesy Wikipedia
American humorist and Cherokee Will Rogers (seen in this pre-1900 photo) was a cowboy in Oklahoma, Argentina and South Africa.

Stephen Yellowhawk, board president of the Black Hills Pow Wow Association, explains…

“Being part of a horse culture and using horses when they were brought here to our people and becoming master horsemen,” comment Yellowhawk, “it’s become a big part of a lot of people on the reservation. Farmers, ranchers living off the land…doing all they can to support their family. Some of them become competition bronc riders…things of that sort. So, it’s a big part of the Lakota culture and Native American culture.”

The involvement of Native Americans in the cattle industry dates back to the late-nineteenth century. With the loss of the buffalo as a means of sustenance, many tribal members turned to cattle as a way of helping them and their families survive. It offered an alternative to farming…which Plains Indians weren’t used to. It also gave the men an opportunity to ride for a living and continue the tradition of competition with one another once the opportunity to take part in rodeos arrived at the turn of the twentieth century.

That ranching and rodeo lifestyle continues for many Native American families today, says Sabrina Pourier.

“My last name’s Pourier,” says the young Lakota woman. “And that’s from the Oglala Sioux Tribe down on Pine Ridge. They’re a big name for Pow Wow or rodeo even. And on my Mom’s side we have Thompson. And Thompson’s are another horse ranch.”

Seventeen-year old Sabrina followed the family’s Pow Wow interests and became a champion dancer. She was also selected as Miss He Sapa – the Pow Wow princess - at the 2013 Black Hills Pow Wow. Before her reign ended last weekend, Sabrina wanted to do something special to honor not only the ranching and rodeo heritage of her family, but the long horse and rodeo traditions of her people. To do that she chose to host a “Hat and Boot Dance Special”.

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
Miss He Sapa 2013 Sabrina Pourier.

The dance style, says Stephen Yellowhawk, is relatively new.

“First time I saw it was at a Pow Wow in Montana,” Yellowhawk recalls. “Just demonstrates the old cowboy turning into dancer…and then the tradition of that. My grandfather…he’s a cowboy and wears a cowboy hat and boots and sometimes, you know, when you’re in a hurry or whatnot…you’ll see half-dressed trying to  get into Grand Entry. Half wearing an outfit and some cowboy stuff. But there’s a very huge mix between the two. And you see a lot of rodeo people that are dancers and you know…they love being cowboys and having that part of life…plus experiencing culture. So it’s kind of a cool mix and it demonstrates someone’s personality…their individuality as a dancer and as a cowboy.”

It’s the first night of the 2014 Black Hills Pow Wow. Instead of the usual fancy shawl she would wear for dancing, Sabrina has on jeans, a pink cotton blouse, a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and carries a lariat. Sabrina is ready to give back to her family, her fans and to the Lakota people.

Credit Photo by Jim Kent
Sabrina Pourier begins Hat and Boot Dance at the 2014 Black Hills Pow Wow.

“It’s part of who I am,” explains Sabrina. “It’s…it’s…where I came from within my family. And, honestly, it’s just a lot of fun to do.”

Native American men and women, boys and girls gather on the edge of the arena as a traditional drum group begins to beat out their song. Strong voices rise in harmony. Sabrina Pourier steps out on the floor. She begins to dance. Her feet step and kick. Her body glides up and down…turning, bending, swirling. But this isn’t a ballet. This is a Lakota cowgirl hard at work. Riding her horse. Moving the herd. That can be seen in the way she raises her arms and moves her lariat. In the way her boots hit the stirrups that are only in her imagination. In the way she stays in the saddle as the fleeting terrain below her changes with the rhythm.

After allowing Sabrina time to herself, dozens of other Indian cowboys join in the dance. And the roundup continues.

Credit Courtesy Clarice Lakota
Dancers of all ages shake hands with each other at the end of the Hat and Boot Dance Special.

Yet this isn’t just about the Hat and Boot Dance…it’s about recognizing her culture. When the drum finally stops, Sabrina gives away two horses that were given to her this year…one to the best male dancer and one to the best female dancer as a token of her respect…for them, for her family, for her people and for herself.

In the Lakota culture, being given a horse is the highest honor that one can receive. It’s a tradition Sabrina Pourier is continuing as she dances her way to the next arena.

ThunderBird Eye Photography - Clarice Lakota - Colorado Springs