Powwows - Traditional Native American Gatherings

Powwows - Traditional Native American Gatherings

Powwows are held annually all over the United States and Canada. What are these and what will you see if you visit one? Let's find out...
CelebrationJoy Staff
By Earl Hunsinger

Let's have a powwow. Today, this expression is used, at least in an informal way, to refer to meeting together, holding a conference or gathering, perhaps privately. For Native Americans, it means something a little different. The modern English expression powwow, or pow-wow, comes from the Narragansett word powwaw or powah. It literally meant 'one who has visions', and was used as a title for a Native American shaman. Because of his important role in councils and ceremonies, it was also used to refer to these gatherings.

Modern Native Americans still hold powwows. While these still retain religious elements, they are primarily social events. They allow old friends to get reacquainted and new friendships to form. Usually, the public is invited, and vendors set up booths to sell everything from Native American jewelry to traditional Native American foods, such as fry bread and Indian tacos. They are also occasions for traditional singing and dancing, which can be both entertaining and educational for non-Native Americans attending the powwow.

There are many different types of songs sung at powwows, covering subjects ranging from war and religion, to various social customs. These songs are usually sung in "non-lexical vocables" today. In other words, using syllables without specific meaning. You might think of the syllable 'ah' as an English example of such a 'non-lexical vocable'. A powwow singer produces these sounds at the back of the open mouth and throat, with the song changing in rhythm and power as the pitch changes. Many of the songs sung today originally had words. As various tribes met together, these were changed so that all could take part, regardless of language differences. The modern style is a result of these changes.

The singers usually accompany themselves on drums. In fact, this group is normally called the 'Drum'. The number of participants can vary, but there are usually at least four. Larger powwows may have additional Drum groups in addition to the host Drum. While older drums made from various types of animal hide are sometimes used, you will also see modern drums used. For some tribes, the drum symbolizes the heartbeat; for others the power of thunder. In any case, the sound created by a circle of Native American drums leaves a powerful impression.

While the Drum sings and drums, the dancers dance. The powwow begins with the Grand Entry. Some believe that this started when tribal groups were asked, or forced, to lead a parade through town. In the Grand Entry of a modern powwow, all the participants come into the arena, or sacred circle, set aside for the dance. Various dignitaries and important individuals enter first, along with the national and state flags. Tribal flags and the eagle staffs of different tribes present are also brought in. Then, the rest of the dancers enter, usually divided based on the type of dance they are dressed for and their age. After a flag song and a prayer, the dancing begins.

Various types of dances are performed, both traditional and more modern (not modern as in hip-hop, but modern in the sense of Native American dances that originated as recently as a hundred years ago). One such recent dance is the men's fancy dance. In this dance, men, usually, young men and boys dance freestyle wearing brightly-colored feathers. Often, prizes are awarded to the best dancers. There is even an inter-tribal dance, where everyone, even tourists, may participate.

Visiting a powwow is more than an entertaining way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Although they have evolved over time, and the singing and dancing seen at a modern powwow is different from former times, they are still evocative of a bygone age. They help to keep alive the traditional cultures of the Native American people. They remind all of us that it isn't necessary to travel to another country to see ethnic and cultural diversity. Wherever you may live, in practically any part of the world, if you look hard enough, a rich cultural heritage may be found in your own backyard.
Hip Hop Dancer
native american drums
Pow-wow dance