A Time to Dance, Celebrate Tradition
Aguilar siblings and others keep their vibrant and colorful Te-Moak traditions alive
By Dianna Troyer
Stepping into her mother’s childhood moccasins at age 4, Adriana Aguilar began to carry on her family’s tribal tradition of dancing at powwows.
“My grandmother made the moccasins and gave me a shawl to wear when I started dancing,” says her mother, Alicia, a member of the Wells Band of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone. “I’m grateful to still have them and that they fit Adriana.”
Five years ago, Adriana began dancing in the tiny tot division at powwows— gatherings tribes host throughout the West to celebrate their heritage through playing drums, singing, dancing and socializing.
At powwows, members of drum groups sing and play drums for dancers, who are judged in several divisions and earn prize money. Besides dancing, participants compete in Native American hand games, rodeos and sports contests.
“If you’ve never been to a powwow, you should go,” says Alicia. “It puts a smile on your face, whether you watch or dance. At the grand entry, you see all ages from the elders at the beginning to the tiny tots. The regalia each dancer wears is so different and individualized.”
The regalia is made with feathers, beads, porcupine guard hair, elk teeth and other items. To make a jingle dress, metal tobacco lids are twisted into cone shapes and attached to the dress to make a soft tinkling sound as dancers move.
“My kids dance to keep our tribal traditions alive,” Alicia says of her children, Adriana, 9; Enrique, 15; and Leslie, 18. “They say it’s an important part of their heritage and a way to express their traditions and say, ‘I am Native.’”
During summer, the Aguilar family travels a circuit to their favorite powwows: the Duckwater Festival, the Elko Band Powwow and the Shoshone- Bannock Festival.
To share her culture during Wells Heritage Days last summer, Alicia described dances, their origins, and dancers’ colorful regalia while tribal members twirled and swayed to the drumbeats.
In addition to Heritage Days, the Wells Band showcases its culture during the town’s annual Fourth of July parade.
“We have a float and during the parade will do an intertribal dance,” says Alicia, who learned the fancy shawl dance and does intertribal and round dances at powwows. “When I was young, I rode the float. An elder, Nevada Penoli, organized it. I’d like to eventually start doing women’s traditional dancing.”
For now, after working fulltime as the band’s finance director, Alicia’s spare time is consumed with helping her children prepare for powwows. She sews, maintains and refines their regalia.
Depending on the details, Alicia says it takes several months to make the regalia during weekends and evenings. “You never really complete the regalia,” she says.
“You’re constantly working on it, making little changes or replacing fringe that has fallen off. Before a powwow, we see what needs to be done.”
Adriana has outgrown much of her regalia since she started doing the fancy shawl dance.
“I’ve made three regalia for her so far because she grows so fast,” says Alicia. “The one she wears now is baby pink, purple and turquoise. She loves the fancy dances because she says it makes her feel like a butterfly.”
Her brother, Enrique, started out as a fancy dancer, wearing two feather bustles, one at his shoulders and the other at his waist.
“The bustles are heavier than they look, and you can’t sit down because of how they’re attached,” Alicia says. “In crowds, it was sometimes awkward to move around because you can’t help but bump into people with the feathers.”
For those reasons, last summer Enrique decided to be a grass dancer—a style of dance named for sweet grass that traditionally hung from dancers’ belts and swayed as they moved to the music.
His regalia is made from countless yards of yarn, cut to various lengths.
“We made fringe with colors of baby blue, white and blue, and hot pink around the edges and sides to make it stand out,” Alicia says. “With the grass dance, you’re swaying and bending down instead of twirling and moving fast like a fancy dancer.”
Competing in fancy shawl division, Leslie prefers bright neon colors of pink, green and blue. Her shawl’s background is a shiny, silver-colored material with fringes of pink and orange to catch a judge’s eye.
To practice dancing and prepare for powwow competition, the siblings find YouTube performances so they can observe and practice the moves.
The Aguilars have impressed judges.
“Two years ago, Leslie was second at Duckwater,” Alicia says. “The first year Enrique did fancy dance, he was first at Duckwater and second at Elko. All the tiny tots are winners to encourage them until they’re old enough to start as a junior dancer.”
Alicia says her kids have told her they will keep dancing.
“They say they feel a need to carry on our traditions,” she says. “People have told me they like the regalia and music and are glad to see children dancing.”
Photos courtesy of Alicia Aguilar and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes Office of Public Affairs