Honored to be one of four announcers at North America’s biggest pow wow, the Gathering of Nations, Ruben Little Head, Northern Cheyenne, is also one of the younger emcees on the circuit. Now 36, he was only 28, and two years into announcing, when he first sat alongside veteran emcees at The Gathering six years ago.
So it’s with vitality that he reaches into the heart of what the celebration of tradition is all about.
As part of a series interviewing some of the men behind the mic, Indian Country Today Media Network had me talk with Little Head about his view of the announcer’s part in the pow wow circle.
How does an emcee gather the feeling together in a full house, especially at the huge pow wows like The Gathering?
“When you emcee a pow wow, each and every pow wow that I do, there is the responsibility of finding that energy, finding that spirit of the pow wow. There’s a lot of dancers that come to heal, to dance, and there are spectators that are out there watching. A lot of times those spectators feel that energy. As an emcee, you prepare yourself, you get ready for the session. And each and every session – morning, afternoon and evening, or prime time Saturday night – you find that energy, you flow with it, and then you keep it going. It’s just a real positive atmosphere, and once you find it, especially if it’s lacking a little bit, you can fill in where it needs to be picked up and kind of livened up a little bit.”
And the music can keep the energy going?
“I could summarize a lot of the pow wows in saying that the drum plays a real vital, important part of the circles. It brings everybody together. The sound of the singers makes the dancers dance, and when the dancers are jamming, they’re feeling it, and the emcee kind of feeds it. It’s like everybody’s working together on 18 cylinders starting to pump.”
What can you say about prayer that is offered at the beginning?
“A lot goes into that prayer before you start. You call upon a word of prayer to have the creator look upon this gathering celebration of all these people, the gathering of all these nations that come together for a weekend, whether they’re here to dance, sing, or look at the vendors. A lot of people come to find Mr. Right or Mrs. Right. A lot of times people receive something or are in search of something. They usually find it there.”
How did you develop your voice, or your style?
“There’s really no school or anything for it. You’ve got to have a gift for it, a natural talent for it. I had some elders back home that prayed for me for different protection. As an emcee, when your voice carries, it can also heal. Also it can brighten up someone’s day. It helps the drummers to get into it, the dancers to get into it — people just feel good there. The late Kenneth Beartusk, my grandfather, I learned a lot from him, listening to him as a young kid. Lee Lone Bear said some prayers over me. Phillip Whiteman Jr also said some prayers over me and conducted ceremonies. I also visited Douglas Spotted Eagle, at the time he was our sacred hat keeper. And a southern Cheyenne who prayed over me is the late Woodrow White Crow. A lot of my style, my skill as an emcee, is personal experience, and a lot of paying attention. I travel a lot, singing on the drum, and also I dance. I travel with my family – my wife dances, my two boys dance, so I know the pow wow life.”
How do you use jokes and humor during the pow wow?
“I’ve been to a lot of pow wows where I’ve heard a lot of the same stuff; I like to add something new to change it up and kind of liven it up. I try to keep that Indian humor but I also try to fire it up with some energy as well as my own experiences. We share a lot of humor in our home. We like to have our own little sound bytes, movie quotes and teases, and that’s a big part of the Indian humor when I’m emceeing. In an Indian way, teasing is a way of teaching. And it’s also a way of letting them know you care about that person.”
Is there anything else that shaped the way you became an announcer?
“I was brought up speaking my own language and learning a lot from my Cheyenne elders. I now live in Haskell, Kansas, and graduated from HINU (Haskell Indian Nations University), where I currently work as a retention specialist. But I’m originally from Tongue River and Lame Deer, MT. I’ve been taught a lot of about the drum, as far as respect, protocol, etiquette, different mannerisms around the elderly. It’s just a good feeling, knowing that we’re still native and we still carry on our traditions.”