Powwow 101 – Songs, Dances and Public Participation
An article about the original American dance form
by Corina Roberts
There are a number of dances that have evolved from tribal traditions into the styles we see in the arena today. The mens northern and southern traditional dances are adaptations of ceremonial dances practiced by tribal nations throughout the current-day United States. Northern traditional dancers can be recognized by their bustles, often made of hawk and eagle feathers, and their style of dance, moving to the fast rhythm of the northern drum. The southern straight dance, often referred to as the gentlemans dance, is more reserved, keeping time to the slower, deeper beat of the southern drum. Southern dancers do not have bustles, but their regalia is no less impressive.
The Fancy War Dance, or Fancy Feather Dance, is an adaptation of the dances of mens warrior societies of the northern plains. The regalia is flashy and includes a great deal of ribbon work. Double bustles flash and sway with the athletic movements of the dancers as they perform this stylized version of their tribes ancient ceremonies.
Grass Dancers served an important function when nations had celebrations or ceremonies. Their task was to flatten the grass where people would gather and smooth the ground. They bring good energy into the circle and make the way for the dancers who will follow. Their movements emulate the motions of smoothing the grass and soil, although today they often dance on manicured athletic fields and on gymnasium floors.
Womens dances have also evolved over time. They too are divided by region, Northern and Southern, and further divided into buckskin and cloth. The northern womans regalia may weigh 70 pounds; rich with full yokes of beadwork and breastplates that hang to their ankles. Southern regalia usually employs less beadwork, and breastplates of shorter length. There are numerous tribal variations, some of which have very little or no beadwork whatsoever.
The Jingle Dress is covered in small cones. It is a healing dance, the sound of the softly jingling cones and intricate steps of the dance invoking well-being. It is said to have come to a family in a vision, and the dress is created with 365 cones one for each day of the year. The Fancy Shawl Dance is beautiful and energetic. The dance is said to represent the girl or womans emergence into the world as a butterfly emerges from a cocoon, surviving the struggles of its metamorphosis and gaining strength and beauty with each floating step.
The Gourd Dance is actually a ceremonial dance originating with the Kiowa nation.
It is a warrior society dance, often mistaken for a veterans society, but the Gourd Dance predates the formation of the United States. Men dance within the circle to sets of ceremonial gourd songs while women wearing shawls support them from the edges of the circle. The gourd dance honors both men and women and affirms their roles of protecting and supporting each other. Please do not photograph this dance.
Arena Etiquette, Intertribals and Blanket Songs
There are numerous times throughout a powwow when the public is welcome to experience the circle first-hand. There are some simple things to know about the arena that will help you enjoy the experience.
The dance arena is a place of positive and healing energy. Dance for native people is an active form of prayer. We are letting our feet carry our prayers into the Earth. You will notice that many women who enter the arena have shawls around their shoulders even if they are not dressed in dance regalia. This shows respect for the circle and for the feminine aspect of all women.
During dances called Intertribals, you are welcome to come out into the arena. We dance in a clockwise pattern, except for some members of warrior societies who will dance counter-clockwise around the outside edge of the circle. They are performing the function of a warrior, keeping an eye on the arena and watching over their friends and loved ones.
Your children are welcome to come out during these Intertribal songs as well, but please ask them not to run through the arena, cut across the arena from one end to the other, shout or touch the regalia of other dancers.
You do not need to wear regalia to come into the arena during Intertribal songs. Blankets and regular shawls can be worn over a womans shoulders; we know that not everyone owns a dance shawl, and if you choose to cover yourself this way, we will understand and appreciate this gesture of respect.
Throughout the weekend you will notice a number of times when a blanket is placed in the arena while a song is being sung. These blankets are for people all people to place donations on, for specific dancers or groups of dancers who have come to the powwow without compensation to share their culture, songs and dances with anyone who wishes to experience them. It is a way of honoring the commitment of these individuals and groups, who may have traveled from other states just to take part in the gathering. It is a tangible way of saying thank you. We will impose upon our dancers and visitors several times throughout the powwow to express their generosity during these blanket songs.
Some gatherings are supported by casinos, tribal nations, cities, counties or chambers of commerce. Putting on a powwow involves an enormous commitment of time, energy and money. The Children Of Many Colors Powwow is an all-volunteer effort, produced entirely through donations and vendor fees. As such, most of the people who will dance throughout the weekend have come without any compensation. The blanket dance helps them pay for their gas and food. It is not unusual for this money to be shared among as many as twenty people, or to be given as a gift to a needy family.
Cultural Preservation Why It Matters
For many years Native American elders and wisdom keepers have been saying that we must care for the Earth if we expect the Earth to care for us. Now, the threat of global warming is no longer a threat it is a reality. Today, more than ever, we need the wisdom of our indigenous elders to guide us in our actions.
Native peoples worldwide have always understood that humans do not somehow exist separately from the rest of creation regardless of our ethnic or religious upbringing, our fates are intertwined. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Our actions matter. They have impact not only upon ourselves, but on the generations to come.
We need to take responsibility for our actions for our health, for our planets health, for our children and for our childrens children. We need to come into balance with our finite resources and protect them. We need to act in ways that create a sustainable future.
Cultures that are aware of this balance have always existed, but they have always faced and often fallen to the pressures of the more civilized dominant societies; societies often out of balance with themselves and their relationship to other living things. When we talk about preserving and promoting Native American culture, we are talking about something much larger than powwows, or dancing, or learning ancient songs. We are talking about keeping alive the teachings that guide us in healthy ways to relate to other beings, human and non-human, and instruct us on how to care for our Earth so that the Earth can continue to care for us.
Indigenous cultures are not immune to the effects of the dominant societies they are surrounded by. We struggle with complex issues; what is sacred, what is marketable, and where to draw the line. We carry the additional burden of understanding that, while we must live in a society which dictates success in terms of wealth, our hunger for amassing wealth must be tempered with the teachings we know in our hearts are right and good. We know a different kind of prosperity exists; one which is inseparably connected to the health and well-being of all living things, one which has very little to do with money, property and prestige.
For native peoples worldwide, cultural preservation is about survival; personal, emotional, spiritual and planetary survival. We stand on the brink of environmental catastrophe now. The wisdom of our elders and the right relationship of ourselves to all other beings is perhaps more vital now than ever. Many of us were not raised traditionally. We have had to re-learn that wisdom which keeps us in balance.
We are in the process of revitalizing our songs and ceremonies, not for public display, but for something much greater; our survival as nations, as a species and as a living ecosystem, inter-related on all levels, from the smallest microbe to the distant stars. Our elders understood this, and they knew what was coming. It is time now for us to come forward and preserve not only our diverse and vibrant cultures, but the knowledge upon which they have been built.
Author: Corina Roberts is the founder of Redbird www.RedBirdsVision.org