WHAT IS A NATIVE AMERICAN POWWOW?
What Is It All About?
Rich with culture and family traditions, Native American Powwows are fun to attend.
A powwow is a social event where Native American's gather and exchange trade, share cultures and host dance competition. And while there is a competitive edge, it is a celebration and there are certain sacred traditions that are revealed during a powwow. Dancing, to Natives, is a form of prayer, praise, and worship. The powwow does this plus unifies with other people.
A large circle is formed with rope, seating, fencing or other barrier. The circle represents unity and life itself. The dancers go around the circle usually clockwise (in the pattern of the sun) and I'm speaking as a Cherokee. Some tribes go counter clockwise.
The MC (master of ceremonies) is a very important part of the event. This event should be hosted by someone who keeps the crowd alive, interested and moving, making announcements as brief as possible and keeping the energy going as with any celebration.
Some powwows are more relaxed and informal, while others are stricter with tradition and are more formal.
Gourd Dancing Opens the Ceremony
There is a drum circle where about six drummers sit and beat one drum in sync, but with lead-in and offset beats depending on the song.
The powwow usually begins with Gourd dancing inside a large dance circle. The Gourd dance is to honor fallen warriors, tribal leaders and often the Gourd dancers are Native Americans who have fought in war or served in the U.S. Military.
The Gourd dancer shakes a gourd rattle or a rattle made of other materials and side step in rhythm to the drum beats. There is not much "dance" to the side step motion.
Women sometimes stand at the back of the circle and sway in place to the music to honor their warrior husbands.
You do not have to be Native American to attend a Gourd dance. There may be some limitations to photographing Gourd dancing since it is a rather sacred tradition. Check with the MC at the powwow you attend.
Next Inter-tribal Dance
In the same large circle as the Gourd dancers danced, the MC announces that Inter-tribal dancing will begin. Both men and women dance at this time. Children also dance. Special dances will be announced by the MC. Natives from all tribes and non-Natives may participate in Inter-tribal dancing but there are a few tips to follow:
- Some dance more for sacred tradition and to show respect for their ancestors, but this is also competitive and the prizes are nice ones.
- What Natives wear should not be called "costumes". This is their traditional regalia and it is no more a costume to them than it would be for a non-Native to dress up for church.
- Females of all ages must wear a shawl. Whether you are in street clothes or a fancy powwow dress, a shawl must be worn.
- If you are in the circle and someone drops a feather, you do NOT pick it up for them. The dance stops until the rightful owner of the feather retrieves it. If this happens, yield to the MC.
- Photos and video recording are allowed unless otherwise announced. However, if someone drops a feather and retrieves it, photos and video taping must not resume until the feather is retrieved by the owner MC gives the resume blessing.
- Before you photograph an individual who is at rest from the dance, please ask. But during the dancing, photograph all you like.
- Feel free to compliment the dancers when they are at rest, but please do not touch their regalia. Some of their special clothing is for these special events and are quite costly and many add sentimental items to their clothing that could be from an ancestor and may be fragile. Natives are sometimes sensitive to other people touching their regalia particularly sentimental parts inherited.
Cheyenne Trading Post - Concession
What Should I Bring?
Powwows do provide food and drinks. The usual sellers are hot dogs, hamburgers, fry bread, tacos, and chili. They also sell drinks but may or may not have a large choice of diet drinks.
Many of the vendors use the food and drink sales to either help pay for the building or they make a living that way. They are very appreciative of your patronage. However, I recommend if you are a diabetic or have carbohydrate restrictions for other reasons, you take protein snacks such as beef jerky, cashews or peanuts.
Bring your lawn chair or a blanket. Parking depends on the powwow location whether it's indoors or outdoors and you may have to walk a while, but whether or not it's indoors or outdoors, you will need a lawn chair because many arenas have limited seating even if they have bleachers.
Do bring your camera or video recorder with extra batteries.
When held outdoors, you will want to bring an umbrella for shade or wear an appropriate hat, but remember a hat must be removed during certain traditions such as the opening song, the opening prayer song, and honoring the flag.
If you plan to stay at a nearby motel and attend a two or three-day event, make your reservations in as much advance as possible for lower rates.
A Final Thought
Powwows are like a family reunion with extended family.
I would suggest you go to an online link such as powwow.com and do a short study before you attend so that you will get the maximum enjoyment and understand the depth of the powwow celebration. My fellow Natives have been extremely helpful and seem to welcome all questions. They are a caring people, good listeners, who express their ideas and feelings through their traditions. Religion is a way of life and not a part of life. They harmonize with nature (Mother Earth) and respect all things the Creator gave them.
Robert Soto HoopEagle Dance Video
Cultural Comparisons: According to Ron Goombi, Omaha, Nebraska
Emphasis is placed on age.
Emphasis is placed on youth.
Excellence is related to a contribution to the group not to personal glory.
Competition and striving to win or to gain status is emphasized.
Children participate in adult activities.
Adults participate in youth activities.
Family life includes the extended family.
Family includes the Nuclear family.
Clock time is whenever people are ready and when everyone arrives.
Clock time is exactly that.
People express their ideas and feelings through actions.
People express themselves and attempt to impress others through their speech.
Religion a way of life.
Religion a segment or part of life.
Work limited to meeting the needs of the family.
Work is focused on getting ahead or getting rich.
Harmony with nature.
Mastery over nature.