2017-10-12 / Voices

Black Hills Pow Wow – Beginnings and Endings


I love Pow Wows. Big or small, outdoors or in, on the reservation or off – they’re one of the best places to experience Native American cultures.

On the Northern Plains the preeminent Native celebration of the Fall season is the Black Hills Pow Wow. Held each October in Rapid City over the weekend leading into Native American Day, this massive concentration of thousands of Indigenous people from dozens of tribes across the country is THE place to be for traditional dancing, drum groups, games, art, crafts, food and so much more.

Like all other pow wows, it’s also a gathering place for friends - old and new - to visit, catch up, banter, share a smile, a laugh, a hug, a meal or a secret.

For the first 8 years we lived here I faithfully attended the Black Hills Pow Wow. Usually for work – covering some aspect of the event for a radio or print story. Sometimes just for myself.

Something changed that personal tradition in 2007. It was the year that Tanka Bar was introduced by Native American Natural Foods. It was also the first time, quite amazingly, that I met Harvey White Woman – a friend for 8 years – at the gathering that everyone (well, at least every Lakota) in Western South Dakota never fails to miss.

While there he shared a secret – or, at least, a fact not known to many. Harvey had cancer.

I hadn’t seen him in several months and, recalling his on and off remarks through the years about losing weight, I commented on his slim appearance.

“Well…I’ve got the cancer,“ he replied.

I was startled, shocked and, of course, concerned. I’d watched my uncle – my father-figure, waste away from the disease in his 30s. It had quite an impact on a 13- year old. No one close to me had been affected by cancer since then. Now this.

We spoke at length about his diagnosis, his treatment and his determination to combat the killer. And Harvey maintained his wonderful sense of humor…even while addressing these topics.

He also asked me for a favor.

“Can you interview Stephanie Herseth Sandlin? She’s here today. Ask her to do more about the rate of cancer in Indian Country.”

I was at the Pow Wow to cover the introduction of the Tanka Bar, but I assured Harvey that I would talk to Herseth Sandlin – then South Dakota’ s sole representative in the U.S. Congress. She was there for a meeting and a photo-op.

I tracked her down after saying good-bye to Harvey, who was lost immediately in the crowd. We agreed to “get together soon”. Unlike many such salutations, that meeting did actually take place 3 months later - though it would be our last.

And I produced a radio story about the high cancer rates among Native Americans – especially here on the Northern Plains. I also produced a story about Tanka Bar – the first of many.

Little has changed for Native Americans and their fight with cancer. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that overall cancer death rates went up among American Indian and Alaska Native men and women from 1990 to 2009, while overall cancer death rates went down among white men and women during this time. That this “most recent” report – updated in September 2016 - is 8 years behind in its review of the impacts of the disease may be part of the problem.

Much has changed for Tanka Bar and Native American Natural Foods, which now offers a variety of products in 8000 national locations.

Harvey White Woman? My good friend - who apprenticed with Johnson Holy Rock during his last tenure as the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Fifth Member and longed to fill the Lakota elder’s shoes as the next authority on the Fort Laramie treaties - passed in 2008.

There isn’t a time when I hear or see something to do with the Black Hills Pow Wow that I don’t think about Harvey and the fateful news he shared with me that day. As a result, I rarely attend these days. But I also always associate the event with Tanka Bar.

Harvey wasn’t able to carry out his goal to educate the world about Lakota treaty rights. But I’m sure he’s pleased to know that a small business from his reservation has been able to create a Lakota presence among people of all cultures every time they eat a bar of buffalo and cranberries.

Life – and death – is all about balance.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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