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Return of the Native

For centuries, Native American tribes partook in celebrations combining the sacred and secular.

The primary purpose may have been giving thanks to the creator or honoring someone's accomplishments, but the gatherings also gave tribes a chance to gather, eat and celebrate their own version of the Good Life.

Today, non-Native people can join in the fun and learn something about Indian traditions through powwows held at fairgrounds and city parks and on reservations throughout the country.

Powwows are sponsored by tribes, schools, museums, Indian casinos and other organizations, with the goals of strengthening social connections, dispelling stereotypes, fostering understanding of Indian culture and tradition and, of course, having a good time.

Irene Cornell, who first went to powwows as a child in Oklahoma, says word-of-mouth was once the only way to hear about such events.

Directions were usually vague, along the lines of "turn on the dirt road a little ways past the field where the sunflowers used to be." She and her aunt would drive the country roads, looking for cars full of Native Americans that they could follow to the festivities.

Now, word spreads through Web sites, newspaper ads and community calendar listings. Leonda Levchuk, the public affairs specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington, D.C., swears by powwows.com, on which she's found listings for "hundreds of powwows that happen on the community level."

There are also postings for extravaganzas such as the Denver March in Colorado, the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, Schemitzun and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and Red Earth in Oklahoma.

The NMAI holds a biannual powwow in Washington, D.C., which attracted more than 20,000 attendees in 2005. Levchuk says, "[Native Americans] told me they never thought they'd see the day when they could dance and sing their songs on the Mall in front of the Capitol building."

A Richly Woven Fabric

Since the powwow style of dancing, drumming and singing was not universal among all of the 500 currently recognized American Indian tribes, today's celebrations are a blend of cultures and traditions.

The word itself hails from the Algonquin language, and many of the powwow dances originated among the Plains Indians. A staffer from the Southern California Indian Center in Los Angeles says, "Every tribe had its own way of doing things, but traditions were lost when people moved off the land. Now people get together at powwows to get back in touch with the traditions."

According to Levchuk, many Indians "bring their children so they can learn to dance, learn songs and be exposed to traditions in an intertribal way."

Powwows have some elements in common with craft fairs and county fairs, including an abundance of booths selling food, clothing and jewelry. However, here you're likely to find buffalo burgers, fry bread, Indian tacos, and traditional stews along with the corn dogs and cotton candy.

Besides souvenir T-shirts, buckskin dresses and beribboned shirts may be among the offerings. And depending on the venue, the jewelry could range from tiny, inexpensive dream-catcher earrings to exquisite pieces by prize-winning artists like Mary and Jack Tom.

Traditional Male Dancer
Photo: Katherine Fogden, NMAI

But it's the distinctive Indian dress, singing, drumming and dancing that really set powwows apart.

A Grand Entry into the dance arena kicks off each day's events.

The leaders of the procession include a military color guard carrying the U.S. flag, tribal flags and traditional eagle staffs; the powwow host; the head man and head woman, who will lead all of the dances during the powwow; and any special guests.

All of the elaborately-clad powwow participants file into the dance arena, in a swirl of colors, feathers, beads and fringe that delights the eye.

Up to a dozen men playing a single huge drum provide accompaniment, chanting a song as the dancers spiral around the arena.

"When the drum starts beating, it's the resonance of the heart," says Marjorie Colebut-Jackson, the chair of Schemitzun, who leads the Grand Entry at the annual event.

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