Pow Wows

What is Pow Wow?

Pow Wows are social gatherings of hundreds of Native Americans who follow dances started centuries ago by their ancestors and that continually evolve to include contemporary aspects. These events of feasting, drum music and dance are attended by Natives and non-Natives, all of whom join in the dancing and take advantage of the opportunity to see old friends and teach the traditional ways to a younger generation.

Pow Wows have deep historical roots, going back to the early to mid-19th century when huge summer gatherings of tribes were held on the plains, according to Richard West, Director of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The Heluska society of the Omaha in Nebraska had a certain dance with a lively step that it would perform, and other tribes began to notice it.  As the concept spread, tribes embraced the tradition of dancing and singing in different ways, adding their own variations.  The roots of the modern Pow Wows date back 50 to 70 years. From the small gatherings held on college campuses to large urban areas, today’s Pow Wows are contemporary intertribal versions of those 19th-centruray Pow Wows.

They also serve to unite Indians. “One of the things the federal government did in the dog days of adverse Indian policy was to separate us Indian communities from one another,” says West, Director of the NMAO.  “Pow Wows are a powerful contemporary device for getting together as Indians; and, in that respect, they are a potent cultural and social connector among contemporary Indian communities.”

For non-Natives with limited exposure to American Indian culture, public events like the Pow Wow not only serve to dispel stereotypes, they provide the larger community with a chance to experience an American Indian gathering firsthand and to gain an understanding of Native cultures and traditions.

Each Pow Wow begins with the Grand Entry, which is a procession of all the dancers into the dance area. This brilliant sea of color is led by the Head Man and Woman Dancers, as well as an American Indian military veteran color guard carrying the American flag, and various flags of tribal nations.

One of the most important things in the life of Native American is the drum. Native American culture centers around the drum. Without the drum and singers, the Native Americans could not have Pow Wows. This drum brings the heartbeat of our Earth Mother to the Pow Wow for all to feel and hear. Drums bring everyone back into balance. Whether dancing, singing, or just listening, people around the drum can connect with Spirit.

Songs are started with a lead line sung by the Head Singer.  This lets the drum and the dancers know what song is coming.  After the lead line, the second (another person at the drum) will take up the lead line, and everyone will join in with him.  At this point the dancers begin to dance. The loud beats during the songs, sometimes called “Honor Beats” are a time for dancers to honor the drum.  In Northern singing, these beats are generally during the verses.  In Southern singing, the beats are generally between verses.

Pow Wow Dance Categories

  1. Women’s traditional dance can be broken into two groups according to the type of regalia: buckskin and cloth. The oldest form of women’s dance style, is Buckskin.  This is a dance of elegance and grace.  The movement is smooth and flowing.  The ladies wear fine, handcrafted buckskin dresses, decorated with intricate bead designs.   The women carry fringed shawls over one arm.  Ladies cloth is a Southern Traditional form of women’s dress.  The dance is slow and graceful, much like the Women’s buckskin style.
  1. The Men’s Northern Traditional dance is a popular Northern style of dress and dance. The traditional style evolved from the well-known “old time Sioux” style of early reservation period through the 1940’s. The movement in this style is one that is sometimes characterized as similar to a prairie chicken.  The dancer is also said to be re-enacting the movement of a warrior searching for the enemy.
  1. Men’s Southern Traditional, often called the Straight Dance, from Oklahoma is a formal, tailored, prestigious form of Southern dance clothes. The overall effect is of reassuring solidity, with everything closely matched and coordinated.  There are a lot of clothes to wear in the outfit, and accordingly the dance is slow and proud.
  1. The Oklahoma Feather Dance or “fancy dance” is one of the most popular style of dance and outfit seen at modern Pow Wows. The most obvious items in the fancy dance outfit are the great amounts of loom-beaded sets of suspenders, belt cuffs, headband and set of armbands.  Beaded medallions are on the forehead and bustles are also quite common. The other trademark for fancy dancers is the use of large feather bustles.  The dance style is of two types: a basic simple step while dancing around the drum and a “contest” step with fast and intricate footwork combined with a spinning up and down movement of the body.
  1. Women’s Fancy Shawl is the newest form or women’s dance, and is quite athletic! This is very similar in dancing and the bright colors to the Men’s Fancy Dance.  The ladies wear their shawls over their shoulders, and dance by jumping and spinning around, keeping time with the music.  They mimic butterflies in flight, and the dance style is quite graceful and light.  Long fringe hangs from the edges of the shawl, and flies around.
  1. Jingle dress is also called a prayer dress. The dress was seen in a dream, as an object to bring healing to afflicted people.  Jingle dresses are decorated with rolled up snuff can lids that are hung with ribbon.  The ribbon is then sewed to the dress, the jingles placed close enough so they can hit together, causing a beautiful sound.
  1. The Grass dance is a very popular style of dance today. Grass dancing always stands out by virtue of two things: his dancing style and his outfit.  His dancing has been described often by words of ‘gutsy’, ‘swinging’, ‘slick’, and ‘old time.’  His outfit stands out by virtue of the almost complete absence of feathers, for aside from the roach feather, there are no bustles of any kind to be seen.  The unique parts of the northern outfit are the shirt, trousers, and aprons, to which yarn fringe, sequins, and beaded rosettes and other designs are attached.  The outfit makers are fond of using playing card designs-hearts, clubs, spades, and diamonds. Hearts and rosettes are the most common.  White fringe is preferred; however, gold, silver, and other light color fringe is also used.  Bells are worn around the ankle.
  1. Gourd Dance is a type of Native American ceremony that may precede the pow wow or can be a seperate event. A Gourd Dancer wears a gourd sash which is tied around the waist. Also worn is a red and blue gourd blanket or vest over the shoulders. Gourd Dancers dance in place, lifting their feet in time to the drum beats, and shaking their rattles from side to side.
  1. Native American Hoop Dance is performed as an individual show dance in many tribes. A solo dancer performs a restrained dance with a dozen or more hoops used to form a variety of both static and dynamic shapes. Hoop dance usually focuses on very rapid moves. The hoops are made to interlock in such a way they can be extended from the dancers body to form appendages such as wings and tails. The hoops symbolize "a prayer that the promised renewal of the collective human spirit will accelerate and that we will all find our place in one great hoop made up of many hoops."
  1. Tiny Tots (5 and under) are honored as the future of culture. As such, at many events they are not judged in a competition, as it is not wished to discourage the future of the circle from participating.  The emphasis is placed on ensuring these youngsters enjoy their time in the circle and learn from being in the company of the older dancers and singers.  Parents decide what style or regalia in which to clothe the young ones and they are encouraged by the parents, family members, and everyone at the Pow Wow, to dance their best and watch the other dancers, while also learning the proper etiquette and customs from their elders.

*Adapted from the Smithsonian Institutions National Museum of the American Indian.