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
A Richly Woven FabricSince 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,
|Traditional Male Dancer|
|Photo: Katherine Fogden, NMAI|
All Hail the MCPaying attention to the master of ceremonies is the surest way to understand what's going on at a powwow and to respond appropriately. As Her Many Horses says, "The MC plays a major role. He gives instructions on protocol, and explains things ahead of time." The MC announces the type of dance and describes different aspects of it, as well as the regalia, and the traditions behind both. He'll cue the crowd when it's time to stand, to be silent or remove hats in respect, when it's OK to take pictures and for non-Native people to join in the dancing. "If you don't know the dances, you can go to a demonstration or just follow the steps and rhythm," says Colebut-Jackson. "Everyone feels welcome. No one looks down on anyone trying for the first time. It's not a celebration without the audience taking part in it." That's in synch with Cornell's memory of her first try at powwow dancing. "Everyone was so gracious," she says. "I had no idea what I was doing, but everyone seemed to care about my feelings. They were so gentle in letting me know I hadn't won!"
Powwow PointersSome of the traditions are still considered sacred, and first-time powwow-goers can show respect by remembering a few key details.
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