The Indian word “pau-wau” originally referred to a healing ceremony conducted by the spiritual or religious leaders of various tribes. The term powwow is the white man’s version of the word. It is not known exactly how the pow wow got its start. It is believed to have been introduced by the Pawnee tribe as a religious ceremonial meeting filled with dancing and other rituals. Other Indian tribes adopted the custom of the pow wow and added elements of their own culture. The ceremonies were held to celebrate a successful hunt, to give thanks for a plentiful harvest, or prepare a warrior for battle.
The white man witnessed these pow wows when they started settling in Native American lands. Soon the term “powwow” came to mean any kind of Indian gathering, regardless of its purpose. Powwows have evolved from a formal ceremony of the past into a modern blend involving dancing, family reunion, and festival. It is the Native American’s way of coming together to dance, sing, visit, renew old friendships, and make new ones. The powwow is a tangible expression of the American Indian culture. It is one of the most meaningful ways traditional values and cultures can be presented. Although to some, the powwow may appear to be merely entertainment, in reality the colorful regalia, drumming, singing, and dancing are an expression of certain spiritual and emotional aspects of all humanity.
The Pow wow opens with a Grand Entry, a procession of the participants led by the Eagle Staff (Native flag) and the flag bearers, followed by members of the Pow Wow Royalty. One of the host drums sings an opening song while this is going on. Following this, the Master of Ceremonies will invite a respected member of the community to give an invocation. The host drum that did not sing the Grand Entry song will then sing a Flag Song, followed by a Victory or Veterans Song, during which the flags and staffs are posted at the MC’s table.
The Drum is possibly the most important aspect of the powwow. It is considered as vital as life to Native Americans and has been compared to the Heartbeat of the American Indian people. It must be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. Each drum has a Lead Singer who runs the drum and leads the other singers. These songs have been passed down through the generations.
Many different types of dances and regalia will be seen at the pow wow. Most of the various types of dances performed are descended from the dances of the Plains Tribes of Canada and the United States. Men’s Fancy Dance features vivid regalia with dramatic dance movements such as leaps and spins. Their regalia features bright colors, non-traditional colors, and a two-bustle design. Men’s traditional dance features traditional regalia, authentic designs and materials, single or no bustle, and movements based on traditional dances. Straight dancers wear more homemade items such as chokers or breastplates. Their dance style involves stepping on the ball of one foot, then tapping it once on the ground. Then they tap it again, putting their heel a few millimeters off the ground, and then repeating the process with the other foot. All this is done in a walking motion, following the beat of the drum. The Grass Dance showcases regalia with long flowing fringe and designs resembling grass blowing in the wind. Women’s dances also feature a traditional dance with regalia consisting of cloth or leather with authentic design and materials. The dance itself is performed with precise, high controlled movement. The Buckskin and cloth is a traditional Southern dance. The name refers to the type of material the dress is made from. Fancy Shawl Dance features women wearing shawls that are long, brightly colored, fringed, and decorated. The dance features elaborate steps and rapid spinning movements. The Jingle Dress is covered with hundreds of small tin cones that make noise as the dancers move with light footwork close to the ground. There may also be Gourd Dancing led by the Head Gourd. Dancers dance in place, lifting their feet in time to the drum and shaking their rattles from side to side.
Also present at the event is the Arena Director. The Arena Director makes sure dancers have seats, keeps order in the arena, ensures that the dance arena is treated with respect, makes sure traditions are followed, keeps the entry clear for dancers to enter and exit, and watches for dance articles or feathers that have fallen off a dancer.
The Master of Ceremonies plays a vital role in the pow wow. The MC is the person responsible for keeping the singers, dancers, and public informed of what is happening, maintains the order of when each drum group gets to sing, and runs any raffles or other contests. Even more important, the MC educates the audience about the specific meaning of each dance, types of regalia worn by the dancers, and Native American customs, traditions, and rituals.
The entire pow wow event is an educational experience showcasing Native American heritage. It is a living connection that brings together Native Americans and non-native Americans and enhances their relationships. It gives us a glimpse into a people’s culture with roots in the distant past. The traditional dancing and singing is enjoyed by both the participants and spectators. The pow wow provides a setting in which intercultural exchange between Native Americans and non-Native Americans is encouraged and promoted. Pow wows also provide an opportunity where artistic traditions can be learned, valued, and preserved while experiencing Native American hospitality. Through the pow wow respect is paid to past and present Native Americans and expresses hope for a future filled with mutual respect for all races and creeds.