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, 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.

Emil Her Many Horses, an NMAI curator, has been dancing at powwows since 1970. He says, "If you're not familiar with the songs, to an untrained ear, they don't mean anything. Some of the traditional songs tell stories about deeds and accomplishments."

Other songs are based on singing tones instead of words, so members of different tribes can join in regardless of language.

The fringed, beaded and buckskin garments -- known as regalia -- worn by powwow dancers are a blend of various tribal traditions.

Her Many Horses, who has won awards for his beadwork, explains: "There are distinctively tribal designs. If you're really good, you can pick out who comes from where. But it takes quite an eye."

Though the regalia's roots may go back centuries, styles evolved as tribes interacted more and as different materials became available. As with all cultures, the designs and patterns worn by Indians reflect what's important to them. For example, a veteran might include a beaded Marine Corps insignia in his regalia to commemorate his military service, along with more traditional symbols.

Dance contests are an important part of many powwows. Small events may reward winners with blue ribbons and a bit of money to cover travel expenses, while grander events can offer thousands of dollars in prizes. Competition categories are divided by age, from tiny tots to seniors, and by style of dance.

All Hail the MC

Paying 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 Pointers

Some of the traditions are still considered sacred, and first-time powwow-goers can show respect by remembering a few key details.

For example, drums and eagle feathers are related to many traditions and shouldn't be touched without specific permission. Further, some of the dances are prayer-like ceremonies that should be observed in silence. The dance arena is usually blessed before the dancing begins, and it's considered disrespectful for nonparticipants to enter unless invited.

Most participants are happy to talk about what they're wearing and what they're doing, but don't speak to them while they're dancing, singing or drumming, and don't grab them to get their attention. It's also considerate to ask permission before photographing people in regalia on the powwow grounds, and recording the music and singing is forbidden.

At outdoor powwows, viewers are welcome to bring chairs and blankets to sit on while watching the dances, but seating closest to the dance arena is reserved for participants.

But most of all, remember to have a good time. "If you leave with a good experience, that's the whole purpose," says Colebut-Jackson. "What's the point of having a celebration if you don't share it?"

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Elzy Kolb is a freelance writer living in White Plains, N.Y. In addition to writing the monthly JazzWomen! column in Hot House magazine, her articles on the arts, travel, interior design and other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Interior Design magazine and The Stamford Advocate.

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