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Powwow outfits take time, care, skill

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Dancers wear their finest regalia at powwows: beaded capes, moccasins and belts, bone breastplates and snowy-white feathers. 

But all the beautiful outfits don’t just appear. Powwow families dedicate hours of skilled time and hundreds of dollars to create these works of art. 

ShiNaasha Pete comes from a powwow family.

“I like powwow ‘cause I grew up in it,” she said.

She makes her own dresses and decided to make a new jingle dress the week before the Standing Arrow Powwow. 

“I used to go off a dress pattern,” she said, “But now I just cut.” 

Her mom, Linda Pete, taught her to bead and loves to bead herself. But ShiNaasha likes to sew. 

“I don’t have the patience to bead … My thing is fabric,” she said, motioning to several Rubbermaid tubs of printed cottons, velvets, brocades and other goodies. 

“Sewing is calming,” she said, adding that she learned the basics in a home economics class. 

ShiNaasha danced traditional for a long time, but now she dances jingle — original jingle, she calls it, with long sleeves and no appliqués on her dresses, just plain colors or calicos, no feather in her hair, no fan and no fancy footwork, “just straight.”

A jingle dress needs a liner to hold the weight of all the jingles. 

“There should be 250 to 300 cones,” she said, although she’s put a lot more on a dress.

There’s a whole different feeling, ShiNaasha said, when she makes her outfit.

“My blue dress, I feel proud (when I wear it), that’s for sure,” she said. “I’ve always been a fan of original, old style.”

ShiNaasha works with her beadwork and picks colors that coordinate. Her moccasins, belt, barrette, earrings, hair ties, cuffs and leggings are primarily yellow beads, with orange, red, blue, purple and black accents.

The beadwork was her sister’s, modified for her when she was 7, but she’s also borrowed her mother’s or her sisters’. Her next beadwork will be greens and earth tones, and her goal is to finish the beadwork this winter. 

As a junior Life Sciences major at Salish Kootenai College and with a kindergartner, ShiNaasha is a busy lady. Beading will help her wind down, she said. Plus she says she doesn’t sleep much.

After a powwow outfit is finished, then there’s the challenge of showing up at the powwow on time and with all the accoutrements. She’s prone to forgetting socks. 

When the family goes to Fort Hall, they take everything — their buckskin dresses, elk tooth and shell dresses — in case there are a bunch of special dances announced by the committee. 

The trick is to keep everything clean. 

Fan cases keep feathers and fan uncrumpled and clean, and shawls can be hand washed. For jingle dresses, though, the cones have to be removed to wash them. A clay ball cleans buckskin. 

ShiNaasha recommends a bottle of Febreze for warm-weather powwows. It keeps all the regalia smelling fresh. 

In between powwows, beading might need to be repaired, moccasins resoled, seams restitched and bustles fixed.

As a new project, ShiNaasha is making dresses for her sister and herself for a Shoshone/Paiute sundance in Owyhee, Nevada.

“It’s a four-year commitment,” she said.

Instead of jingle dresses, the sundance dresses will be more like wing-dresses, she said.

A wing dress is shaped like a “T” so when the wearer holds her arms out shoulder length, the sleeves hang down like wings.

For her 5-year-old son, Edgar, ShiNaasha had a very traditional and original chicken dancer outfit with a horsetail bustle, an older plaid and brass work. But Edgar “loves shiny fabric,” and wants to be a fancy dancer. 

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