RED ROCK, Okla. – Ed Little Cook has spent a lifetime singing and drumming at powwows. As younger generations step up to continue the tradition, he finds himself in the new role of educator.
A few years ago, the Ponca City resident read an article about powwow drumming – that healing beat and soul of the people. In the piece, a drummer from a northern tribe was quoted as saying there is a difference between northern and southern drumming.
“He made the statement that we (in the south) beat the drum four times through in the middle,” Little Cook, Ponca, said. “We beat the drum hard three times. Everyone in Oklahoma does that.”
In most songs played at powwows, the middle portion features a bar of distinctly harder drum beats. Ever since he read the article, Little Cook has wanted to set the record straight. Most southern Native American tribes will beat the drum hard only three times, and they are not “honor beats,” as the same source called them. That’s not to say that Ponca drummers don’t get carried away from time to time.
“If the song is really good, say, there’s a lot of spirit in the singing, one of the drummers might hit the drum really hard, and that would be strictly for emphasis. He’s feeling good, feeling the spirit,” he added.
Little Cook isn’t complaining. He only wants readers to know how he was taught to drum and how he has taught his son, Little Bear Little Cook.
At the recent annual Otoe-Missouri Encampment in the Red Rock community south of Ponca City, Little Bear Little Cook was honored as head war dance singer.
Friday night, father joined son and the rest of the singers around the drum to play through the night under the summer sky, trees and along the encampment’s branch-laden arbors. When Little Cook talks of “spirit,” he knows of what he speaks. Listening carefully, he closes his eyes to the drumming and singing as he participates and is caught up in the rhythm.
“We treat that drum just like a person. That’s the heart beat of our people. We don’t put that drum in the garage,” he said. “… I was told by older people and grandpa that the drum can make you well. They used to take sick people to walk around the drum and get a blessing and healing.”
Little Cook remembers hearing his grandfather talk about the beginning of powwow in Oklahoma and the Ponca elders who spread it through the southern half of the U.S.
“We brought the style of dancing and singing when we were brought to Oklahoma, when we were forcibly removed. What we call powwow today, we brought that to Oklahoma,” he said.
When the tribe arrived in Oklahoma from its native lands in Nebraska, members shared their traditions with other tribes already removed to Indian Territory, Little Cook said.
“Nobody was dancing here,” he added.
It all came from the White Eagle area, also south of Ponca City. In the early 1900s, the Ponca shared their songs and dance with other tribes suddenly displaced in Oklahoma. Elders were often invited to other communities to create songs for those tribes. When the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch near Ponca City created the 101 Ranch Wild West Show on the advice of neighbor and showman Pawnee Bill, powwow dance took another turn, he said.
Around the 1920s, the ranch featured Indian dancers suddenly dressed in regalia outside of the earthy color palette traditionally seen. Bustles were bigger and feathers more numerous and richly dyed. The flashier regalia created to attract tourists, Little Cook said, was the beginning of powwow’s flamboyant fancy dancing.
Over the years, tribes and even clans have created their own songs and hallmarks. New dances were influenced by tribes from the north and south. The powwow spread and changed, and that’s a good thing if it is to survive, Little Cook said.
“Everything evolves. It (powwow) may even evolve further. If I’m here (when it does), I may not even recognize it,” he said. “We don’t still ride horses and use teepees. We have doctors and lawyers now. But as long as the spirit is there, whatever you do, if done in the right spirit, can’t go wrong.”
Just don’t tell him that the powwow came to Oklahoma by any other route. Little Cook is up for discussing powwow’s origins in Oklahoma, “but no one can claim the dance. They have to come and tell us how they originated it,” he said smiling.
Ed Little Cook (center) sings with his son, Little Bear Little Cook (left) and Phil “Joe Fish” Dupoint of Carnegie around the drum at the annual Otoe-Missouria Encampment powwow in Red Rock. Little Bear Little Cook was the event’s head war dance singer. Dupoint was the head gourd dance singer.
NATIVE AMERICAN TIMES PHOTO BY KAREN SHADE