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Native American Dances and Powwows
The Grand Entry
The dances and powwows of Native Americans are an incredibly beautiful and spiritual experience.
At the powwow, before the dancers appear, before anything is started, there is performed with great ceremony, beauty and pride The Grand Entry. When all the people have entered in the proper procession and are in place within the circle, the prayer song and honoring song for veterans begin.
One cannot but admire this breathtaking ceremony and feel the great pride and excitement of the dancers.
The Eagle Staff Leads the Grand Entry
Powwows are a celebration of life, heritage, language and culture of the Indian of North America. A powwow is an event organized and performed by Native Americans. It is a time for nations to share, celebrate and perform with their cultural dances and songs, to meet once again with old friends, renew their bonds and meet new friends. It is a sacred, spiritual and social event that over time has come to mean more each year to the people of the nations. A nation, in reference to American Indians, is all the tribes that belong to one culture, such as Cherokee or the Sioux.There are many different powwow styles, hundreds of distinct songs, dances and traditions that identify each nation.
Nowhere can one more fully see the true beauty of Native American peoples than through the dancers and powwows of these noble people.
The Gathering of Nations is one of the largest powwows in the United States. It is held annually the fourth weekend in April, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The people who perform in the ceremonies are a prime example of the beauty, grace and spirituality of American Indians. The ceremonies held during the powwow are profoundly spiritual. Even the dances performed by people of all ages have strong spiritual connotations to them. There are many different interpretations for each dance. Each tribe has their own story connected with each dance that stems from the tribal and family background of spirituality, so, they differ slightly from tribe to tribe. When a dance is performed it is a spiritual story, a truth to the individual, for truth exists in the mind and heart.
A good friend of mine, Star Dancer of the Abenaki people, loves to dance and has danced in powwows for many years. She said this about her feelings of dancing:
"I remember the summer I first started dancing, it was my second season. I did and still do prefer night dancing, but always started with a traditional women's dance. I loved watching that fringe sway with their movements, it is so luscious and womanly, and yet so dignified and proud. I was told once that the fringe and the dress itself, as they brush against each other, send whispers up to Creator."
Watching the dancers perform is a beautiful and moving experience for the observer. Yet if one knew what was going through the minds and hearts of these dancers, the experience would be much more meaningful. When seeing the fringe on a dancer's dress, one might think it is lovely and a nice accent to the regalia. The dancer sees the fringe as a method of communicating with the Great Spirit and Nature - it "sends whispers up to the Creator".
Women's Traditional Dancer
Women's Traditional Dance
The eagle feathers worn by dancers in the traditional dance are considered sacred to the people of all tribes. The eagle flies the highest of all birds and carries the prayers of the people up to the Creator.
Eagle feathers are traditionally awarded for feats of bravery or accomplishment. If an eagle feather falls from a dancer's regalia a member of the powwow staff will rush to it, cover it and stand guard by it till a chief comes to pray over it. The feather is then ceremoniously given to an honored veteran in attendance.
Among the dances, the women's traditional dance is an essential part of a powwow. It is considered an honor to participate in this dance. The dance is to portray the dignity and grace of the traditional Native American women of today and to honor their women of the past.
The dancers wear either a T-dress or two piece dress adorned in applique ribbon work in their individual tribal colors and design. The dancer wears a matching purse and shawl, each with long fringes. A scarf around the neck is also a usual part of her regalia. Beaded leggings and moccasins complete the regalia.
The apparel worn by all dancers is never called a costume or outfit. The proper term is regalia.
Traditional Dance Regalia
In the traditional dance, some women will wear a fully beaded buckskin dress or one that is accented with bead work to compliment the soft leather. A belt is worn to hold beaded pouches and a knife sheath, to represent the way of life of the early plains women. The rest of her regalia is the same as the women wearing the cloth dresses.
When observing the traditional dance for the first time, one will think it is very simple, for the dancer moves gracefully with short steps, the feet moving in just an up and down motion. However, when one becomes more familiar with the dance, it is noted that the dancer has a great presence of dignity and posture. The dance actually requires tremendous precision in timing with the beat of the drum. On the hard beats, or honor, of the drum, the dancer will bow very gracefully.
The "Drum" is the circle of drummers who play the songs for each dance. All dancers are required to keep time with the heartbeat of the Drum. The Drums are of major importance to any powwow. Drums are considered sacred by the Native Americans and are thought of to have a spirit of their own. They represent the thunder of Wankan Tanka (The Great Spirit), and the beating of the heart of Mother Earth.
Men's Traditional Dancers
Men's Traditional Dance
Like the Women's Traditional Dance, the men's dance is a living history of the early days of their ancestors. The dance is symbolic of warrior societies of the Great Plains in the old days. The upper body movements are those that simulate the movements of a hunter, tracker, or warrior in battle, while movements of the legs and feet are heavy and grounded with flat-footed down steps.
The men wear eagle feather bustles and a hair roach made from porcupine quills. Although some of the different dances have been modified to comply with a sense of representing all tribes in a general way, the Men's Traditional Dance remains specific to the dancer's tribe in colors and design of their regalia.
Men's Grass Dance
The long fringes on the arms and waist of the man doing the Grass Dance is symbolic of the waving grasses on the prairies, which the Creator made and put there to inspire a lame youth to dance.
In legend, the youth was lame and could not do what the other boys did, so he felt lonely and unfit for the tribe. Creator looked down upon the boy and encouraged him to go out to the tall grasses and copy their movements. The boy was able to sway like the grass and long fringes were made for him to represent the grass when he danced for his tribe. The tribe adopted the dance and learned from the boy, who had found his gift in life.
The Grass Dance is often said to reflect the need for balance in life. Each movement that is danced on one side must be repeated on the other side. This is supposed to be a gift from the Creator to celebrate joy.
The regalia of a grass dancer is rather simple, with a shirt that has a V-shaped yoke, long pants and a headdress. The long fringes on the sleeves and waist represent the tall grasses on the plains. The movement of the "grass" is from swaying side to side as the dancer faces forward going around the circle with the other dancers. The timing of the swaying and the steps must coincide with the Drum.
The jingles on the women's jingle dress are there to compliment the Jingle Dance. Each downward step is done to make the jinglers produce a joyous sound, like happy little musical notes.
The jingles are cones made from the lids of snuff cans which are rolled into cones. Jingle dresses will have several rows of cones sewn in a design the woman has created. This dance is similar in movements to the Grass Dance, which became popular about the same time.
Men's Fancy Dancer
Men's Fancy Dance
The regalia on a young man doing the Men's Fancy Dance contains bright colors to represent the rainbow spirits.
The Fancy Dance looks like a lot of fun. It is vigorous and fast. It takes a lot of strength and stamina to complete the full dance. The fancy footwork, jumps and spins makes this a very lively dance. The regalia and face paint on the men is elaborate. A bustle is worn at the back of the waist and a smaller bustle is at the back of the neck.
The Men's Fancy Dance is a favorite competition for all at a powwow.
Men's Fancy Dancers
Have you ever attended a powwow?
Girl's Shaw Dance ~
Women's Fancy, or Shawl Dance
The Women's Fancy Dance, often called the Shawl Dance, is just as vigorous as the men's dance and is a delight to watch. One may wonder how the women keep their balance as they jump, spin and do their fancy footwork.
The regalia is quite impressive. The woman wears a beautifully decorated shawl, usually embroidered and has long fringes. This is worn over a cape and dress, with leggings and moccasins. All pieces are coordinated in color and design.
As she dances, the shawl is an important part of the performance. It is spread out so the beauty of it will be seen by everybody as she turns and spins. This is a very athletic dance.
Women's Fancy/Shawl Dance
Sacred and Noble Traditions
When Native Americans emerged from the governmental control and confinement, they brought back to the world traditions which they have held sacred and noble for centuries. They never lost their spirit, their honor or their nobility. They retain today the traditions, beliefs and culture of their ancestors and pass it on to not only their children, but to the world, to experience and enjoy. They are a loving and giving People.
While many ceremonies and even some powwows are closed to the public and kept as private and secret ritual ceremonies, there are some traditions they gladly share so that others can learn and become familiar with an ancient way of life. The world as we know it today is in great need of what the Native American traditions have to offer. Their profound respect for all living things, their love and respect for Nature and their great respect and love for their Elders and children is something that all too few peoples even consider today. Their culture comes forth from the earliest spiritual life traditions of an ancient time and ancient peoples, which is very honorable and noble.
It is way past time that we, as a nation, do all we can to uphold the First Peoples of this land - to stand not above them, but with them as one with the same goal - to protect the heritage and future of all our children.
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Note From Author
At the first powwow I ever attended, I had volunteered to help with directing parking for the vendors and dancers. During the ceremonies inside, I was invited to join a group of Native American women in the Traditional Dance, not in the competition, just on the side during intermission. Even so, I felt very honored to be a part of their tradition - they patiently taught me how to do the steps and bows.
© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns