Dusty July days and hot August nights are spent creating sweet sweat as much of Indian country marks the summer by traveling the powwow trail, hop scotching across a region or the nation in search of the next, best powwow. For many Native Americans, the powwow trail is much more than just entertainment; it's a way to honor a spiritual connection to their ancestors.
The Poncas are credited with creating the first powwow type ceremony in the early 1800s, while the modern day powwow developed among the Plains tribes in the 1920s. The idea quickly spread and today members from almost every tribe coast to coast participate at some event or other. Over the years, powwow has evolved. "Contesting," or dancing competitively for prize money, is a new twist, as is the sheer number of events (now numbering over 300 held year-round), and the size and popularity of contests-some fill sports arenas! But the small, non-competitive and family-oriented events still remain popular as well.
Simply put, a powwow is a gathering of American Indians who come to dance, celebrate, pray, laugh and socialize. But for each person the meaning of the powwow, and their place in that ceremony, can only be defined by themselves.
For many powwow veterans, the thrill of entering a new powwow ground never abates. A lifetime of being the Master of Ceremonies at hundreds of powwows qualifies Sammy Tone-kei White, a Kiowa of Anadarko, Oklahoma, as an expert. "Since 1968 I've gone to at least two a week; that's a lot of powwows!" he says, "And now I MC about one a week, on an average. And, I still enjoy it!" For 21-years he's presided over what some consider the granddaddy of all powwows, the Gathering of Nations, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico each April.
Reno Charette of Montana, a Crow and descendant of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, has been dancing from the age of nine. When she was in college she saved every single penny and didn't buy herself new clothes for two years, all so she could afford to give herself a matching set of beaded moccasins, purse, belt, scarf slide and bracelets. "I wore it all on graduation day," she proudly states.
Powwow Etiquette & Tips
Do not talk while an elder is speaking on the address system.
Dress properly-nothing too revealing for the ladies.
Leave the chairs around the dance area alone. They are for the dancers--bring your own.
Do not touch the dancers or their regalia.
Ask before you take a photo—it's just polite and dancers may have religious reasons for avoiding photos. Never enter the dance arena for a photo.
Listen to the MC. He will tell you when to take your hats and caps off during traditional dances.
When a blanket dance is announced, be prepared to donate a few dollars when the blanket passes you. The money will be donated to the person or drum group being honored.
Ask people around you to explain things you don't understand-most will be eager to share their knowledge with you.
To these hardcore powwow folks, the arena is a sacred but fun place, with its heartbeat residing in the music. "I like the songs, beautiful songs, that's the secret at a powwow," says White. "It's good medicine." The songs are divided into two main styles, northern and southern. Northern singers have a much higher pitch than the deep tones of the southern singers. Some songs have words while others are pure chanting. For example, an honor song might be composed for someone who has recently returned from war or the military, or for someone who recently passed away. Other songs provide ladies the chance to ask that special man to dance. Yes, at powwows, songs for sweethearts are strictly ladies choice! You'll know it's safe for anyone to join the dancing when the MC calls for an "inter-tribal dance."
There are some old favorites passed down from generations past but today more and more drum groups are being formed that are using their own languages to create new powwow songs. Take the 2004 Grammy Award winning group Black Eagle from Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico. When they started out in 1989 they imitated their favorite drum group Black Lodge. "We got so fascinated by that group," recalls Malcolm Yepa of Black Eagle. "We tried so hard to sing their songs right, to pronounce the words right!" But it was hard to sing in a different language. When the young members of Black Eagle met in person with members of Black Lodge, they were encouraged to write and sing in their own language. So Yepa went home and started composing in his Towa language.
Today his songs for the Men's Fancy Dance category include lyrics that talk about the dancers and how good they're dancing, how strong they look all decked out. Songs for the Women's Fancy Shawl speak of the same and encourage the young ladies to dance hard and fast. They even take a stab at love songs when the MC calls for a two-step or a Round Dance. Other recent Black Eagle songs include references to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and appeals to the Creator to keep our nation strong and safe and to help all people live a better life. Yepa says the Creator has given them the talent and blessing to compose songs and to share them with others, so in a way he looks at his songs as prayers for all people. "The songs are for us to live a better life."
One of the important roles of the MC is to let the crowd know what type of dance or competition is coming up next. They also call out to the drum group the category of the next song, though the groups must pick the specific song to perform, and also occasionally take public requests for songs.
Picking a favorite drum group is very personal and there are hundreds to choose from but White likes the Cozad Singers and the Young Bird Singers--both from Oklahoma and of the southern style-and Big Bear Thunder Child from Canada and Meskwaki from Iowa representing the northern style.
"Many of them (drum groups) have young people sitting around the drum which is exciting," says White. "It shows the culture is being passed down and the songs are being preserved. Without them you might as well stay home! Nothing will happen without the drum and the singers!"
However, it is the dancers who bring life to the songs. At most powwows, the usual category of dances for men include northern traditional or southern straight, the grass dance, and the modern fancy dance. Northern traditional dancers often have lots of natural bird feathers in their outfits, and dance with quick steps, crouching low to the ground-resembling a prairie chicken's walk or a warrior in search of his enemy. Southern straight dancers have a regal air to them, standing upright, and dancing with short purposeful steps. At points in their song they will bend over and dance in semi-circles imitating how they surround their enemy.
For ladies there are the traditional buckskin or cloth dances, the jingle dress dance, and finally the ladies' fancy shawl dance, which is the equivalent to the men's fancy dance.
The modern fancy dance is the one that captivates most folks. The main difference between the traditional and the modern dances are the pace and the exuberant, flashy way the dancers-both men and women-spin their way around the arena.
"Back in the day when I was young, the elders in my family didn't want me to act like that, spinning and lifting my knee," says Charette. At age nine she started dancing women's traditional cloth. She was taught that a young lady should be graceful and dignified and very low-keyed when it came to dancing. But today she doesn't discourage her daughter from dancing fancy shawl. "It's definitely a young person's dance. At 47, I probably could do the dance steps for 30 seconds before my body started hurting."
Stopping on time is a key, and tricky, aspect of good dancing. Drum groups may make up songs with sudden endings designed to make the dancer misstep. If the dancers can keep up with the pace and not be fooled by a false ending they have a decent chance of winning the cash prize. "When a dancer oversteps, usually the judges won't vote on them at all," explains White. "A lot of times the dancer will just walk out of the arena." That's when White will tell the crowd to clap for the dancer for showing good sportsmanship.
Not all powwows charge admission or pay out large sums of prize money. "It's a good thing we can talk about powwows that don't have competition at all," says White. "These men and women come because they love to dance! They don't give a second thought to the fact that there's no money involved."
"I don't dance competitively," says Charette, "I dance for people who can't dance. On her belt she has a pocket where she carries the prayer cards she picks up from the funerals of family and friends. "When I dance, I dance to honor them," she says.
The one category that steals White's heart every single time is Tiny Tots. "It's the most wonderful thing in the world to have the tiny tots competition because it gets them out in the arena, and some can barely walk. I appreciate all the moms, dads and grandparents getting those little ones ready and for teaching them to dance. They're the champions of tomorrow!"
It's okay to admire a dancer's clothing but a travesty to call it a costume. "Costumes are worn during Halloween," says White. "It's not something we put on because we're gonna go out and trick or treat or dress up and play Indian." It's better to refer to the dance clothing as outfits or regalia.
Regalia is unique to each dancer and dance, and as powwow continues to evolve, there are no hard and fast rules regarding regalia. Years ago, one would not see the neon colors used today by some fancy dancers, nor design elements ranging from Mickey Mouse to the Nike swoosh symbol. But, there are some standards for various dances.
For instance, the regalia for grass dancer features yards and yards of yarn or ribbon hanging from the shoulders and waist. They symbolize the prairie grass the dancers historically would stomp down to prepare an area for dancing. Other outfits dazzle the eye with intricate beadwork, often containing personal motifs and designs that reflect their heritage. Most beadwork is created by a family member and given as a gift to the dancer, though today folks may also place "special orders" with beadworkers for their regalia. Women's jingle dance dresses are covered with rolled up tobacco tin lids that are attached to the dress. The bright silver shapes create a delightful tinkering sound as the dancers move.
Look closely at regalia and you'll also see use of porcupine quills and other traditional materials. Historically the decorative elements were applied over buckskin, but today the favored base material is cotton.
Dancers take great care to ensure their outfits are intact and "safe" during a powwow. If not, the dancer stands a chance of dropping a part of their regalia in the arena. The worse offense is when an eagle feather falls. It's important to pay respect to the eagle feather because for many tribes it represents a connection to the Creator. All dancing stops until the feather is properly retrieved.
White offers a tip for novice powwowers. "Sit down and stand up when everyone else sits and stands. Just follow the crowd. Be respectful and everything will be fine. We still have our ways, our beautiful songs. Be with us when we celebrate those things."
Patty Talahongva (Hopi) is the president of the Native American Journalists Association; the host of the radio program "Native American Calling" (see "Passages" this issue); sits on the board of Unity: Journalists of Color, Inc.; and is a frequent writer for this magazine and other major national print and electronic media. Louis Baca (Santa Clara Pueblo/Tewa) of Española, NM has been taking photographs personally and professionally for more than 30 years. He is the owner of Blue Cloud Photo-GFX and shows his work throughout the Southwest. Sylvia Montana (Apache/Kickapoo/Mexican) of Longbeach, CA has been attending powwow since her teens and photographing them for about 20 years.