This weekend I attended my first powwow. I learned so much about powwow etiquette, regalia construction techniques and the traditions behind the dances.
I went to the Woodlands and High Plains Powwow, which is an annual event. I hope to make it a tradition, because it’s never too late to get to know your neighbors.
See, I grew up near the White Earth Nation and it’s always bothered me that I didn’t know very much about the folks running an independent nation just a few miles east of me. Our textbooks were silent. Tribal affairs were largely ignored in local media. In fact, despite having Native American friends and family members, I was pretty ignorant about indigenous history and culture until I was halfway through college.
Now, I know I can’t help what I was taught. None of us can. But I do think we can do our very best to do better.
About this powwow — and powwows in general
The Woodlands and High Plains Powwow is an intertribal event which welcomes dancers and participants from states and provinces all over the region. It’s a great way to listen and learn about many different tribal nations and to experience the power of community in a rich and beautiful way.
Powwows typically take place over several hours or days, which makes the events relaxed and social. Dancers and spectators mingle, dance, shop and eat together. People of all backgrounds are welcome to observe and to dance in intertribal dances, which will be announced.
But it’s important to note that a powwow is about the dancers, drummers and the greater community, not visitors. The music and movement is spectacular, but this goes much deeper than a performance.
The intricate garments dancers wear aren’t costumes. The correct term for clothing worn at a powwow is “regalia.” These intricate and symbolic garments often contain elements
The first person I noticed when I walked in was the striking Rebekah Jarvey. Rebekah hails from Rocky Boy’s Reservation, a Chippewa Cree community in Montana. Her incredible beadwork caught my eye and, like most artists and craftspeople, she was pleased to have someone notice precision of her work. (If you’ve ever even attempted to work with seed beads, be prepared to have your mind blown at a powwow.)
Women’s Northern Plains Traditional Dance
Rebekah is a Northern Plains Traditional dancer, a dance that (for women) emphasizes grace and stillness. Female dancers are notable for their dignity and restraint and every item she wears tells a story or quietly amplifies the soft swaying of her dance.
Her buckskin ensemble has a traditional shape, but she gave her elk hide skirt a more contemporary design. It features dramatic sleeves, an intricately beaded yoke and long fringe that moves when she does.
She carries traditional items like a fan, an artfully beaded medallion and a lush shawl made from otter fur. Her braids are decorated with otter fur as well.
Her breastplate is made of deer bone and her regalia features a variety of other materials, including long, elegant dentalium shells, conch shells, brass beads, colorful seed beads and eagle feathers. The regalia design elements for her particular dance can vary as much as the dance itself.
Rebekah’s son Royce is also a talented performer who dances Traditional and Fancy Dance in powwows. He also dances to hip-hop in his free time.
Please note that it’s important to always ask if you can photograph a dancer or drummer. (And it’s especially important to get a parent or guardian’s permission to photograph kids.) This is their time, not yours, and sticking a camera on someone’s face at a powwow is every bit as a rude as doing so at a family reunion.
Here’s Royce in his Fancy Dance regalia. It was designed and created by Rebekah and her partner, JR Fox. His enthusiasm made me grin. He carried that energy into his dances as well.
This sweet-faced young gentleman is Joaquin. He was also getting ready with Rebekah’s group.
His wolf hide regalia is fierce and dramatic. He was the only one I saw wearing anything like it all day.
I also ran into Gabe Bennett, from Sagamok First Nation, an Ojibwe, Odawa and Pottawatomi community in Ontario. He’s a Fancy Dancer like Royce.
We didn’t talk long, because it was soon time for Grand Entry, the opening ceremony. If you can only stay at a powwow for a little while, make sure you don’t miss Grand Entry.
The dancers lined up in order of their dances, a rich tapestry of color snaking into the distance. Proud veterans solemnly readied the American flag for presentation.
Many of the men moved to the drum circles arranged around the perimeter of the dancing area. The drum circles were an intergenerational affair, with teenagers and young boys sitting in the circle among the elders. Babies were tucked back into strollers, to be returned to dad or grandpa or uncle’s knee during a break in the action.
Conversations quieted to an expectant hush.
When the first song began, it was absolutely electric.
The drum beats were hypnotic. The singing swelled and soared in ways that I’m sure is logical and well-practiced, but sounded thrilling to my untrained ears.
My mind didn’t understand the song, but my spirit did. The energy in the room was something tangible, a wall of sound that made my heart and my eyes full.
In the center of the arena, the dancers were a riot of motion, all swirling shawls and feathers, tapping feet and everywhere, everywhere the rhythmic jingling and jangling muted by fabric and buckskin audible softly underneath. The jangling came from the bells around the men’s ankles, the jingling from the women’s dresses themselves.
Jingle Dancing was the only powwow dance I was familiar with before this weekend. (I took a dance class with a pair of Jingle Dancing sisters in college.) I was surprised to see that the dance seems to have originated in three Ojibwe communities, two of which — Mille Lacs and Red Lake — are just a few hours away in Minnesota.
It was strange to think of a dance originating anywhere, since dance feels so universal. But like many other types of art, this dance is drawn from the landscape it grew up it.
The Jingle Dancer is light on her feet. Every delicate movement makes the jingles sewn into tiers on her dress shimmy and chime. This is a dance of uprightness, of grace, of economy of motion.
The male Fancy Dancers are the complete opposite. Their dance is athletic and strong, a swirl of colorful, powerful motion. Their regalia features a spiky roach on their heads and dramatic feather bustles on their backs. Every element moves with them.
Here’s Gabe in action with another Fancy Dancer.
The dances are vivid, but they never felt like a performance. Instead, it seemed that the dancers were lost in their own worlds, dancing for themselves, for meditation, for worship. It was a beautiful thing.
If you’ve never been to a powwow before, I recommend it. I don’t think it’s possible to understand the U.S. — or North America — without experiencing this particular communal art form and gathering in person.
What about you? Have you ever participated in a powwow? What’s your favorite dance? What powwow etiquette tips would you add? (I know I have a lot yet to learn.) Which powwows do you love?
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