Pow Wow is a tradition that has many legends about its origins. For example, many people believe that the War dance Societies of the Ponca and other Southern Plains Tribes were the origin of the powwow. Others, though, consider the Native American Tribes as the origin for the tradition.
Today, communities organize these events. They work hard for weeks to prepare and make sure everything goes smooth. The MC and the Arena Director run the event. Each Pow Wow begins with the Grand Entry, which was originally a parade through the town.
People carry flags, including the US Flag, Tribal Flags, the Pow Flag, Eagle Staffs of various Native Nations, and more. The flag at the event has a dual meaning. It reminds us all of the ancestors that fought against this country, and also a symbol of the US which Native Americans are now a part.
Let’s talk more about these events and how the organization takes place.
Planning for a Pow Wow event takes months, and sometimes a whole year. There are a couple of parts of the planning process, starting with the committee.
The committee consists of a number of individuals that do the planning prior to the event. When the event has a sponsor, usually a tribe, college, or organization, many of the committee members come from there. The main job of the committee is to hire and recruit staff, secure a location, and recruit vendors.
The staff run the event on the day or days it happens. The committee hire staff months in advance. For many people, getting chosen as part of the staff is an honor, showing respect for your skills.
During the event, the Arena Director is in charge of everything. Sometimes, they refer to him as the “whip man”, but usually the whip man is the director’s assistant. Many Pow Wow events do not even have a whip man. The job of the director is to make sure dancers are dancing during the event and that the drum groups know the type of song to sing. If there are contests, he will provide judges.
The master of ceremonies, or MC, is the voice of the Pow Wow event. His job is to keep singers, dancers, and public informed about what happens. He sets the schedule of events, and maintains the drum rotation.
We talked about the organizational part of the event. But the people making a Pow Wow special are the dancers and the drummers.
The head dancers consist of the Head Man Dancer and the Head Woman Dancer. Sometimes, there are Head teen dancers, girl dancers, golden age dancers, and so on.
These head dancers lead the other dancers in the grand entry or parade and open up the Pow Wow. In many cases, they also lead dancers during songs. In some cases, regular dancers do not enter the arena unless the head dancers are already out dancing.
Another aspect of the Pow Wow event are the host drums. They are responsible for singing the songs at the beginning and end of the session. They usually start the grand entry song, the flag song, and the veterans or victory song at the beginning. And at the end, they sing the flag song, retreat song, and closing song.
During the Pow Wow, host drums are called upon to sing special songs.
We said before that the origin of Pow Wow is unknown. There are many theories, but there is not one definite answer. Yet, the styles and types of dances derive from the traditions of the Great Plains nations of Canada and the United States.
The most common dance is the intertribal, where a Drum will sing a song and anyone who wants to can come and dance. The Round dance and Crow Hop are similar dances. While there are open dances, there are also contest dances for a particular style and age group. With that in mind, here are some popular and common dances during a Pow Wow event.
Fancy Dance is a dance featuring vivid regalia with dramatic movement, often including spins and leaps. You can distinguish these dancers by their bright colored regalia consisting of two large bustle that they wear on the upper and lower back.
Northern traditional is another men dance featuring traditional regalia, single or no bustle. The movements derive from story telling traditions, or when the pow wow served as a ceremony among the warrior societies.
Straight dance is a neat and comes with homemade features such as chokers and breastplates. Their dance is similar to the Northern, they take one foot and step on the ball of their foot and then they tap it once on the ground. What follows is another tap, but this time with their heel a few mm above the ground. Repeat with other foot. This dance is hard to follow especially during a beat of fast drums.
The grass dance features regalia with long and flowing fringe and designs that look like grass blowing in the wind. These movements are more elaborate than the traditional dancers, but less flashy.
The traditional women dance features regalia of cloth or leather, and dancers who perform with precise and highly controlled movement.
Fancy shawl is a female dance with women wearing brilliant colors, a long and fringed and decorated shawl. They perform rapid spins and elaborate dance steps.
Jingle dress or the healing dance includes a skirt with hundreds of small tin cones. They make noise as the dancer moves.
In the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic has completely changed the Pow Wow event. Yes, there are social distance pow wows that take place. There are also virtual pow wows. Last summer, a few small pow wows took place across Indian Country. But most of them got canceled, with tribal governments trying to help limit the spread of coronavirus.
Last summer, organizers in Quebec wanted to make one happen in real life. And they pulled it off, despite government warnings and last minute cancelations.
The organizer of the Eagle and Condor Pow Wow, said, “My belief for a pow wow, it is very healing. There’s good medicine”.
For visitors, it is important to understand a few things. For starters, always be on time, these pow wows run on a tight schedule.
Dress appropriately to remain respectful of the culture and ceremony. That means dress modestly. When the weather is hot, a T-shirt and shorts are okay.
Respect the opening prayer, a signal of the beginning of the Pow Wow. The Elder performs the opening prayer, and the drum takes center stage.
There are times you shouldn’t take photos during the event. For example, during ceremonies and prayers. That is why you should ask for permission.
Never bring drugs or alcohol this is a cultural event, not a party. Pay attention to announcers. The Master of Ceremonies, or MC, will talk you through the event. Listen to know when to sit, stand, and when to join the dance.