I’m getting closer and make a turn on another gravel road up a big hill. While there are still no signs, based on what I saw from my previous vantage point, I’m confident this is the right move. I make it to the top of the hill and see people that are helping with parking. We catch eyes and a teenager, no older than sixteen, waves me in with a big smile on his face. I finally made it! “Welcome to our party, we’re so glad you came,” said the teenager, who is wearing a sweatshirt with pictures of Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and two others I don’t recognize and the words, “IWA - Indians with Attitude” printed on the front (it was awesome).
I get out of the car feeling nervous, as I still have no idea of what to expect, but there is clearly no turning back now. I keep my camera packed because I’m not sure if taking photographs is an appropriate thing to do. Not even five minutes after my arrival, I get a taste of the true authenticity of this event. As I am heading to the main area, the first people I walk past are an older couple, at least seventy years old, who are conversing in their native Algonquian language. They stop their conversation and look at me with a puzzled expression, but I’m quickly relieved of the awkwardness when they both give me a nod and a big smile.
Well now I know why I didn’t see anyone when driving through town - they are ALL here. I approach what looks like a giant donut shaped stadium. The big circle has bleachers around the outside and is shaded by white overhangs which are covered with beautiful vines and flowers criss-crossing each other to form the back “wall”. The middle is a large open area and it’s very clear this is where the magic happens. The surrounding area on the outside of the stadium is lined with booths of vendors from the town, selling traditional Navajo food and beautiful handmade items (jewelry, clothes etc.)
I do a lap around the venue then decide I want to get some food. I walk over to one of the booths, which is entirely made out of plywood and has a sign that reads, “Traditional Navajo Tacos,” written in black spray paint. 'Sounds legit'. I grab my taco, which is a huge homemade tortilla that takes up the entire plate and is topped with a ‘healthy’ portion of seasoned ground beef as well as the normal taco fixings. The plate must have weighed five pounds. I make my way back to the bleachers to eat; while watching what I can only describe as a spectacle.
After quickly scarfing down as much of the taco as I can stomach (not much), it’s now time to take out my camera and move closer to the action. I’m assuming it’s now some sort of opening ceremony as I see the Chief proudly standing in front, and a number of tribe members standing behind him. As I’m adjusting my camera settings to compensate for the hazy sky, the entire crowd begins to sing ‘God Bless America’, which stops me in my tracks and gives me major goosebumps.
I spend the next hour or so walking around the venue and watching the “show” at different vantage points. I’m truly amazed by the unbelievable colors of their traditional clothing, which they all wear with such admirable pride. There are people across five generations in costume, each one as unique and beautiful as the next. I also can’t help but notice the true sense of joy, community and tradition. You can just feel how important and special this day is to them.
The powwow seems to be structured by age group as well as gender and when each “category” is announced, all respective individuals who fall into that demographic head to the center of the circle to perform a dance. There are speakers around the area that are playing a song which is to the beat of a fast and powerful drum - it sounds like something they would perform before going into battle. The song is in their native language so I can’t begin to guess what they’re saying, but it sounds awesome and makes me want to get up and join the dance.
After about twenty minutes, I realize it’s not a recording but is being performed by groups around the arena. There are five different groups sitting in a semi-circle around a drum, all of which are made up of young adult males. I don’t need to understand what they’re saying to see that this is clearly an honor for them. I am blown away as it’s something I’ve never seen or heard before, so I decide to walk over and perch myself at the top of the bleachers so I can film the powerful performance.
While I enjoy seeing the traditional ensembles as they are all unique, I’m most drawn to the four “elders” of the tribe. One look at them makes it very apparent who the top dogs are. As soon as I see that it was their time to take center stage, I stand up and move in to get a closer look.
Very happy and content with my experience at the powwow, I decide it’s time to get back on the road to make sure I have some daylight left when I arrive at Glacier. It’s not often you get the opportunity to experience a culture so different from our own, especially in the United States, so being able to see the powwow first-hand is something I will never forget. I can tell how special this event is for everyone there and regardless of their lives outside of today, I have no doubt that this will continue to be passed on for many generations to come.
I leave the reservation and am now on my final stretch before reaching the main destination: Glacier National Park. I drive west for about an hour, before needing to stop and get gas. The station is right off the main road, which runs through a small farming town that only has two traffic lights. I get out of my car and while there’s no sign of the Hell’s Angels, I notice a farmer, who I’m guessing is around seventy-five years old. He’s dressed in his trusty overalls and flannel posted up behind a big produce stand that he set up in the unused parking spaces along the back edge of the lot. We make eye contact and I immediately know he’s going to try to sell me something (kinda my thing.)
“Can I interest you in some fresh produce from my farm?” he says with a slow, Canadian sounding accent. Still full from the aggressively-portioned Navajo Taco and with a car packed full of snacks, I politely decline and go inside to use the bathroom.
Just after I put the gas pump back and turn to get in my car, we make eye contact again and he gives me a friendly smile and politely nods. 'Damn, he got me', I thought as I walk over to see what he has. We strike up a conversation and I tell him I’m only passing through and this is the last night before backpacking in Glacier. That’s when I notice his crop of vegetables, which makes me do a double take as it genuinely looks like something you would see in a magazine or commercial - straight perfection. “Would you like some cucumbers to snack on during the drive?” the farmer asks. Not my typical road trip food, so I ask him what fruit he has and he hands me two huge, vibrant orange apricots. “One dollar, please” he responds while handing them over. I don’t think I’ve ever had an apricot outside of the jelly I grew up on, but these things are immaculate and I’m looking forward to trying one.
As I’m getting my wallet out he proceeds to tell me that his wife just got done baking pie, if I wanted to take a look. My Mother grew up on a farm located in a small community in Northwest Ohio, so I know ALL about pies made from scratch by a farmer’s wife. Combining that with my problematic sweet tooth, I know I’m in trouble. Before I can answer, he turns around and sets two on the table in front of me. There’s a berry pie and also strawberry rhubarb, which both get my mouth watering. “Here, feel the bottom of this one, it’s still warm” he says as he places the strawberry rhubarb pie in my hands. 'Sales guy. I respect that,' I thought to myself while evaluating the pristine-looking homemade goodness, made by a true veteran in the kitchen. Based on the fact that it arrived to his stand twenty minutes ago and the look of his vegetable crop, I opt for the strawberry rhubarb. I don’t even leave the gas station to open it up and when I have my first bite it takes me right back to my Grandma’s kitchen on the farm. Honestly, it might be the best pie I’ve had since. I wasn’t expecting to buy a pie and apricots from a farmer at a gas station during the trip, but it was a very welcomed and pleasant surprise.