The bright smile on 17-year-old Kameko Blackbird's face before she danced Friday night is typical of the excitement at the annual Black Hills Powwow.
"Dancing is my life," said Blackbird, who drove 11 hours from Fort Duchesne, Utah, for her third powwow in Rapid City.
Blackbird began dancing at age 2 and has been told her elders carried her in dances before she could walk.
"It means a lot to me," Blackbird said.
She is among hundreds who will perform and thousands who will attend the 26th annual powwow this weekend at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The event attracts singers, dancers and artisans from throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The gathering began Friday morning with the youth day symposium, which was attended by close to 3,000 children. The event is designed to educate youths and build awareness of the Native American culture.
The first Grand Entry officially opened the celebration Friday evening.
"I grew up around older people, and I got influenced by my grandpa on this drum," said Cheston Ghost, 31, of Rapid City. "This way of life — it means a lot to me really. As far as singing, I just want to be heard."
Ghost, who is originally from Manderson, plays with the drum group Hehanke.
The various contests offer $60,000 in total prize money, according to the powwow's official program, though many performers like Ghost are participating only in an exhibition.
"You sing for the people, and I'm just proud to be a part of this powwow," said Ghost, who has been performing at the powwow since 2005.
"It's all about the heartbeat," he said pointing to his drum, which is said to be the heartbeat of the people. "That is all that matters."
Competitors are judged on the technicality of their songs, including the strength of the singers' voices and their etiquette, and the beat.
Fred Stands of Oglala attended the powwow for more than 20 years.
He sings in his group Sons of Oglala, which he said was formed in the 1950s and passed to him in the 1990s. The original singers have passed away.
Younger generations perform modern songs, but he wants to keep the older songs going so they don't fade away, he said. The songs tell stories, and the powwow is a chance to display his tribe's history and see performances from other Native cultures.
"This is one of our celebrations. I love being here," Stands said. "It's part of me. That's what I do. I like it."
Blackbird said she attends about two powwows a month, and although the Black Hills Powwow is in many ways like others, this one is her favorite.
"There are a lot of dancers, and they are just more traditional up here. They respect everything more," said Blackbird, who is part Lakota. "They want to keep their culture, their language and heritage as Lakota people."