On the Powwow Trail: The Quanah LaRose story

Photo courtesy of Quanah LaRose

Quanah LaRose has lived a life that, if he wasn’t a real person, would be straight out of a movie. A celebrated powwow dancer and singer from the Ute tribe of the Great Basin, LaRose has followed the beat of the drum from Atlantic to Pacific and all the way back again, eventually settling in Rhode Island when he fell in love with a woman of the Narragansett community. Today, LaRose focuses his attention on the marketing endeavors of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, but his prior story is the stuff of legend.  

Amadeus Finlay (Motif): We may be speaking in Rhode Island, but the homeland of the Ute people is far from the Ocean State. Bring us right back to the start of your journey. Where were you born, and what was your childhood like?

Quanah LaRose: I was born in Roosevelt, Utah, not far from the Ute Agency at Fort Duchesne. It was cool growing up out there, but it is rural as heck, so we played a lot of basketball, lots of outdoor activities. Education is different; you learned a lot of stuff by watching people, by picking it up from your parents and grandparents. We rode bikes everywhere … oh, and we killed a lot of birds! That’s how we learned how to hunt.

AF: How did that lead you to the powwow trail?

QLR: I got into powwow because my mom and dad traveled around a bit. My dad sang with White River Singers, and he has a lot of cool stories; hanging out with Porcupine Singers and the Meskwaki Bears, oh man, so many stories. My earliest memory was 4th July powwow; my older sister was a shawl dancer, and I just loved it. As soon as I could, I got involved, dancing southern, southern straight and traditional before I became a grass dancer at 17. 

AF: What was your first performance on the powwow trail?

QLR: \I traveled around quite a bit as a powwow singer before becoming a dancer. I sang with Red Spirit and other groups, seeing a lot of Utah, southern Wyoming, Colorado, bits of Nevada… Once we traveled to California, I can’t remember where, but it was the longest trip I ever went on at the time. At 17 I became a dancer. At first, I wanted to be a traditional dancer. It looked really cool, all the face paint, feathers; real warrior-like. But my brother and sister talked me into grass dancing because the regalia was easier to make!

I want to say my first competitive powwow was Chief Looking Glass Days in Kamiah, Idaho, with the same guys I had gone to California with. We just piled in a van and went up there to visit adopted relatives, check out the area and compete. I got 2nd place, so I was pretty stoked. 

AF: Did you get the bug?

QLR: Pretty much! I just went anywhere I could. I graduated high school, and then took off. I joined Southern Cree from Rocky Boy, Montana, and lived up there for a spell. We traveled to Canada, all over; lots of good times, good memories. Things were innocent. We didn’t think about cash as much. Things like filling up your tank, it was cheaper to do than today. And we didn’t care anyway. At times we had no money, no food, but we roughed it, just living a van. We lived, man. We lived it all. And all these stories were just the first 10 years. Since then, I’ve been in every state, bar Hawaii, every Canadian Province … France, you name it. Powwow singing and dancing has taken me everywhere. Fortunate times. I mean, I put 50,000 miles on my car one summer. 

AF: How did that happen?

QLR: We drove from Seattle to Schemitzun Powwow in Connecticut, back to Washington, then across again to hit up the Shinnecock powwow in New York State, and back to the West Coast … among many other big journeys! Powwow people; we drive everywhere. Once, after I had met my wife, Silvermoon, and moved to Rhode Island, I hopped in the car and drove to San Diego … not long after that, I discovered I liked flying a lot more!

AF: Was that frantic summer your first trip to southern New England? The summer where you met your wife?

QLR: No. I had come to Schemitzun years before with Southern Cree, back around 1997 when it was really big. At one time, it was the biggest, most amazing powwow anywhere. Everybody was there. It was just amazing to witness it; it was THE one to be at, the granddaddy. But no, I met Silv in 2000 when I was out here with The Boyz from Minnesota.

AF: Have things changed?

QLR: Yeah, it’s different now. There’s money to be made in powwow, and people do make a living off it. But there will always be that spiritual element to it, that’s the heart of powwow and it always will be. 

AF: Do you like living in Rhode Island?

QLR: Of course! The food makes it easy to like it out here! 

AF: Can you sum up what is it about powwow culture that held your attention over these years and led to all these incredible experiences?

QLR: From being a little kid, growing up watching guys like the Blackstone Singers, and always thinking “Man, these guys are awesome,” to becoming friends with them, becoming relatives with your idols, it’s pretty special you know? Like, Jim Clairmont from Blackstone is my adopted father, and his son, my adopted brother. And it’s fun, people are always teasing and laughing, playing practical jokes. If you get mad, then everyone jumps in and teases you until you smile!

As for the day, you just get into it. No limitations. You get the spirits; you feel the dance spirit. And after the song is over, you wonder about what you just did, what did you do. It overcomes you and everything else fades away. You see dancers who have got it, that spirit, and it gives you goosebumps. Makes you feel connected; makes you feel proud to see the power and spirit of your people, your culture, living and breathing right before your eyes.