Contemporary Native American Pow Wow

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PowWows are enjoyable social events still celebrated today, deeply rooted in the past and to a solemn time.

The word PowWow is an anglicized version of the Native word “pau-wau” or “pauau,” referring to spiritual events when healers often came together. The exact origins became obscured when Native American Indian dances, including PowWows, were forbidden or illegal in the 1800’s. These indigenous people may have attempted to hold a banned PowWow on July 4th, 1891, in Montana, when police used threats for the US army to break apart and disband them. Thus, it’s known PowWows existed at least one-hundred years and probably for centuries.

Thankfully, everyone can freely experience and relive the PowWow today and its popularity has spread outside North America. Contemporary PowWows are held in urban areas as well as on Indian Reservations. It’s a celebratory time, another way to give thanks to Mother Earth, and all the good things life brings. Held frequently throughout the USA and Canada, especially in summer, Natives and Non-Natives alike are welcome to share the beauty of a time-honored tradition.

Planning the Powwow

Much pre-planning and hard work goes into organizing a PowWow. Dancers began crafting their handmade garments months in advance which includes intricate stitching and painstaking bead work. In a true sense, planning a PowWow is a “tribal” effort where everyone involved is doing their share. Tobacco pouches are usually made (tobacco is considered sacred) as appreciative little gifts, along with other handcrafted articles. The menu, of course, must be decided upon and prepared, often including buffalo burgers, Indian Tacos and Fry Bread.

American Indian Fry bread

The history of Indian Fry Bread is surprisingly sad. Southwestern Indians commonly ate flat bread (similar to Aztec tortillas). By mid 1800’s, the US government provided cheap rations of white flour, sugar, salt, lard, dry milk, and oil (that was often rancid) for Navajo Indian reservations. Because of deprivation and neglect, Indian Fry bread was created when hungry Navajos were forced to use these rations as main ingredients.

The delicious bread is deep fried in kettles and tastes fluffy and light. It can be used as a puffy Indian Taco shell (filled with buffalo burger or hamburger, pinto beans, lettuce and tomatoes), or double as a dessert topped with cooked cherries or apples. It’s also enjoyed plain or with butter, cinnamon, and honey.

Understandably, making fry bread is a sacred, symbolic tradition to many Natives. Sometimes a prayer is offered to the person who teaches one how to make fry bread. Other PowWow food may include corn, bean, or even Stone Soup (water cooked with stones, onion, and some vegetables). Alcohol is not offered at powwows.

PowWow Dancers and Native Music

A central part of PowWows are colorful dancers dressed in traditional regalia (often mistakenly called costumes by non-Natives) and music. The flute and drum remain important Native American music instruments.

During PowWows, the chanting drummers gather around a big drum to beat it in unison, producing the random and hypnotic sounds. The spiritual, simple music seems to instinctively inspire both dancer and observer. This steady resonance compares to a beating heart and is pleasantly mesmerizing. It calls out to souls, akin to sitting around a campfire when one feels the natural human allure to stare into the flames.

The circle is very important imagery to First Nation People, and a drumming circle (sometimes shaded by a structure of saplings and cedar leaves) is further encircled by the dance ring. There, the brightness of flashing feathers, braided hair, and all the elaborate detail on individual belts, beads, and jewelry (worn by both men and women) is a sight to behold. Together with Native Indian singing of vocables (sounds without words resembling a lament, long wail, and a prayer) is unforgettable.

Types of PowWow Dances

Dances include The Grass Dance (fringe appears to wave on a moving body like wind rippling through Plains grass), Men’s Fancy Dance (a fast, agile, exotic dance originating in Oklahoma), the Jingle Dance (popularized in the 1900’s by Chippewa/Ojibwas, who sewed jingling ornaments of rolled tobacco tins on dresses), Fancy Shawl Dance (a fringed, decorative shawl is worn across the shoulders and outspread arms, while female dancers delicately turn and swirl, resembling butterflies), and other dances such as the captivating Hoop Dance. Native dances are highly entertaining, but usually have symbolic meaning and rules. If a feather falls from the regalia of a dancer its improper to take it from the ground.

The public is encouraged to respectfully join in with social dances, which are generally a simple one-two, one-two step around the circle appearing dignified and graceful. Its traditional to enter this ring, referred to as the Sacred Circle, from the Eastern direction.

PowWow Grand Entry

The PowWow begins with a Grand Entry into the arena, thought to reflect a time when the government made Indians parade through town to dance for the public. Tribal flags and other flags, including a POW flag are carried during the Grand Entry.

“Native Americans hold the US flag in an honored position despite the horrible treatment received […] The flag has a dual meaning. First it is a way to remember all of the ancestors who fought against this country. It is also a symbol of the US which Native Americans are now a part of.” (What is a Powwow)

Modern PowWows Keep Tradition Alive

Other PowWow events may include individual singers, story tellers (of animals and Native legends), and special announcements. Big crowd pleasers are the vendors at booths selling beads, stones, rocks, fur, hides, claws, talons, all things needed for making Native regalia and crafts. Original Native American crafts and jewelry are also sold.

PowWows are family times enjoyed by all and tend to be addictive; some people follow the PowWow trails across America and Canada. Usually, a single PowWow lasts an entire weekend.

When all is done, there’s much clean-up work to be done by those hosting the celebration: Teepees to dismantle, kettles and pots to be washed, tables to take down … In many ways, the last day feels something like the day after Christmas, until re-planning begins once again. The Great Spirit seems to have protected His PowWow from its foes; one can feel a presence there, and should express gratitude for such forgiving generosity.