The Native American Powwow … A Way to REALLY Understand!!

At the Powwow

Why and What Is a Native American Powwow?

  • The Powwow is the Native American’s way of getting together – meeting, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones.

  • The Powwow is the Native American’s way of renewing the old ways and to preserve a rich heritage.

  • The Powwow is the venue that approximately 90% of all Native Americans attend or participate. They are held year-round around the country – even Alaska!

  • Native American Powwow celebrations help to maintain some continuity of traditions.

The History of the Ghost Dance

And, to a Non-Native American?

And what could a Native American powwow mean to a non-Native American? Here’s my little story (although there is some Indian ancestry).

My parents lived in southern Delaware and once a year, the The Delaware Nanticoke Powwow is held. My husband, daughter and I would go down for the weekend, go to the powwow and we all had a GREAT time!

Nanticoke Indian Powwow

We would watch the dances and which varied by tribe and by dress. We watched tribal chiefs, princesses, elders, organizers and all the dancers enter the circle carrying various regalia items and the U.S. flag and tribal flags and other flags too, all carried by Native American U.S. Veterans. This is called the Grand Entry.

We’d watch the men dance, the women dance and the children dance. We listened to the singers – without them, there would be no dancing. And, when I think about it, the songs were in the different languages of the various singers – yet another way to preserve unique tribal traditions.

The rhythm of the drums resounded like a heartbeat! The ceremonial dress was magnificent and the dances were explained which helped everyone understand what we were watching.

We would visit booths, eat A LOT of food and watch more dances. Walk around, look at crafts, books, listen to music, eat again, … At the end of the powwow, everybody came together in a circle and all who wanted to could join the circle and dance the Round Dance. Everyone was interspersed with each other…Indian, non-Indian, Indian, etc. I was moved, inspired, and my daughter who was about 2 or 3 had the time of her life! I felt welcomed, information was freely shared, and questions were answered.

The last time we got together as a family group before my mother died of cancer was at that powwow in 1989 – she died in 1990. It was our last chance to renew ties, make memories, dance, laugh, and sing before hospitals, chemotherapy and hospice.

Mom & Daughter at Nanticoke Powwow

"...In the past 30 years the Gathering of Nations has grown from an early, simple dream to one of the world's most recognized annual festivals. From the beginning the concept has always been to produce an event where Native people can come together each year to celebrate and share culture, and a place where singers and dancers can feel confident that the competition is fair to all. It was from those genuine and humble beginnings that the Gathering of Nations PowWow has evolved into the event you see today, as well as its role in many community outreach efforts. None of this could be have been accomplished without the loyalty and dedication of good friends and family."

How the Native American Powwow Started

...Did it start with the war dance societies of the Ponca and other southern Plains Indians?
...Did it start when Native Americans were forced onto reservations, they were also forced by the government to have dances for the public to come and see? Before each dance they were lead through the town in a parade that is the beginning of the "Grand Entry".

In the broadest of terms, a Native American powwow is a gathering. The powwow was originally a Plains celebration that spread to most other tribes.

Info snippet: Did you know… the powwow is North America's oldest public festival.

The spiritual center of a Native American Powwow is THE CIRCLE; a place to be respected and honored, it is a sacred place that is blessed by a spiritual leader. The circle is entered only from the East (where there is an opening) and dancers travel in the same direction as the sun. This circle of life has been celebrated for centuries with seasonal ceremonies of feasting, dancing, singing and drumming. To Indians, the circle of life is endless, no beginning, no end. Originally powwows were planned around seasonal changes but as non-Native people interacted with the Native American, customs were altered.

Within a tribe, powwows were needed to help to drive away sickness, ensure success in battle, interpret dreams, or to help individuals or tribes in other ways. Prayers, singing, dancing and drumming were all used by powwows (coming from the Narrgansett word powwaw meaning "spiritual leader") in those ceremonies; and wherever Native American people gathered there was feasting, socializing and trading. So, the gatherings themselves came to be called Powwows.

Info snippet: Did you know... there is even a cruise devoted to the Powwow - The Pow Wow Cruise!!!

"The singing is a gift and praise to the Creator; and the drum is the heartbeat of our People. The singers and drummers together are called THE DRUM."

Feather Dancer

The Regalia…

The dance outfits worn in the circle during the Powwow are called "ceremonial regalia". These are NOT “costumes” – a word that means something artificial and worn outside of the everyday life. To the contrary, these Native American outfits are very personal and artistic expressions of the dancers' lives, feelings, interests, family and spiritual quest.

Regalia items can be gifts from elders or treasured people in the dancers' lives and are honorings to be worn with pride and responsibility. The regalia evolves and changes as the dancer evolves and changes in life. Changes are made seasonally depending on the fashion of the time or the personal change in taste. There is no contradiction in blending historic elements with very modern elements, for example interweaving traditional beadwork with Minnie Mouse braid holders.

Since the regalia expresses the life of each individual dancer, design elements from many different sources are appropriate.

Quoting from Ron Davis, an Objibwe Grass Dancer:

"It takes a long time to make an outfit, you know. You can go through life and keep adding on to that outfit. Because there are different circumstances that surround different items that you add to your outfit. When you're dancing, these things that are in the regalia, they bring out a shine. You actually shine out there, and you feel good about yourself. Everybody can do that. It's not just for Anishinabe people. It's for everyone."

The Hoop Dance at the Powwow

The Native American Powwow Now…

There are several different types of powwows but the two most common ones are traditional and competition. A traditional Native American powwow is one where everyone who participates in the dancing or singing programs is awarded day money. Any competition at a traditional powwow is informal. Ceremonies are also held such as honorings, giveaways, "first" dances and adoptions.

A competition Native American powwow has significant prize money available for the dancers who place near the top of the competition. Source for Everything PowWow Since 1996 is one of the BEST sites I’ve seen on the subject.

In the words of Mike Hotaine, a Master of Ceremonies and Dakota person from Manitoba:

"Ochiapo means come and help each other. Come let's do it together. Hokahey ochiapo, [means] to give each other strength, to give each other words of encouragement...gratefulness for you to be here, and gratefulness that we met today and talked, and that's what the Powwow's about. It's a celebration of people coming together to share and communicate. No matter what part of Mother Earth you're on, that part of land is relative, and whoever walks on it is your friend, your 'koda.' That's how we look at it. When we come to a celebration, a Powwow, it's like a bunch of birds coming together to communicate, to talk about things, about life. It's about a new beginning that we will create for each other, for two people, and then we will fly away. And that's exactly what will happen here. We come together this weekend, and after it's finished we'll be going home in our directions and the Powwow will be finished. And we will go home feeling a different beginning, a different beginning that's happened."

Women in Regalia

I would strongly urge everyone to attend a Native American powwow! It’s an excellent venue to participate, observe, ask questions, buy handcrafted items, expand your horizons, and YES, eat some authentic food. The music will stir your soul, the outfits will stir your senses, and the songs…well, they will stir your spirit!

The History of the Ghost Dance

Don't forget to check out Source for Everything PowWow Since 1996

Return from Native American Powwow to Home Page