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The Tradition of Pow Wow

October is Pow Wow month in the Black Hills, when one of the largest pow wows in North America is held annually. For various reasons – including recent health challenges – it has been a number of years since I attended this or any other pow wow. I had forgotten how exhilarating this traditional cultural gathering is for both participants and observers. At last year’s Black Hills Pow Wow in October my thoughts and emotions tumbled over themselves in such rapid succession that I was compelled to take notes to try to capture it all – while vowing that it would not be so long again before I attended another.

As tradition dictates I shared this experience with family. A pow wow is, after all, first and foremost a family gathering. Warm greetings are exchanged everywhere as the dancers arrive – many already fully costumed* – their bells and jingles tinkling gayly with every movement as they scurry to take their places. As always I appreciate the back story, and jingle dancing (because of the athleticism required, always performed by young women) has an interesting origin. In the early reservation years, when tobacco rations were delivered in small tin cans, creative seamstresses rolled the round lids into cone shapes and attached them to women’s dresses, where they created the desired cacophony. The downside is that is nearly impossible to sit down in a dress covered with three-dimensional tin cones. (The standard procedure is to hitch the skirt up nearly to your waist over your leggings so you can catch your breath between competitions!)

The combined cacophony of thousands of these decorations seems incongruous in the historic sense, because Native survival was based on stealth and the element of surprise. The slightest noise – a baby’s cry, a horse’s whinny – could give away your location to the enemy, or frighten off the herd of buffalo which could mean the difference between a comfortable winter or one marked by hardship and hunger. That’s why Indian children were trained not to cry – by simply holding their noses at the first whimper. A baby faced with the Hobson’s Choice of breathing or crying inevitably chooses oxygen.

Pow wows however, grew out of the celebration after a great battle, telling of great feats of bravery, or after the successful hunt, relating equally impressive tales of hunting prowess. Then the need for silence was over, and the resultant jubilation and story-telling were enhanced by rhythmic drumming and noise-makers of all kinds. Today’s omnipresent bells and jingles decorating ankles, wrists, skirts, and shirts are emblematic of these original expressions of triumph.

I was surprised when the ticket taker waived me in – until I made the connection with traditional Indian respect for the wisdom that elders have accumulated over a lifetime. Free admission to what we now call Seniors is a 21st century way of recognizing and continuing that tradition.

There were 1,382 contestants at last year’s pow wow, and at one point all 1,382 of them were crammed onto the arena floor at once, surrounded by over a dozen competing drum bands. I was mesmerized by the sounds, the extravagant colors, feathers, shawls, and elaborate decor of the outfits (contestants are judged on their hand-made regalia, costing many thousands of dollars, as well as their dancing ability).

For quite awhile there seemed to be no particular plan for this procession. They just kept coming and coming, some with babes in arms, also in native attire. The floor became more and more crowded until most participants could do little more than just sway to the beat of the drums. As a pretty serious claustrophobic, I was happy to be safely up in the bleachers, observing from afar, as I wondered how the dancers were ever going to extricate themselves. Then – amazingly – the chaos began to turn to order. Dancers in the various categories were suddenly lined up in perfect concentric circles, in their proper categories, and performing the appropriate dances with room to spare! What a spectacle.

There are many different dance categories: traditional, fancy dancing, shawl dancing, jingle dancing – each in women’s, men’s and children’s categories. It’s not uncommon to see people dancing in place in the audience – in street clothes or dance attire. And there were several children whose enthusiasm simply could not be contained and were dancing on the outskirts of the dance floor throughout!

My favorite dances represent hunters and their prey. Some, with roaches as their headdresses, represent the hunted: animals roaming the prairie in search of food, with very distinctive movements, eventually become food for humans. The circle of life. Others are the hunters in search of food to feed their families. It never fails to fascinate me. When my own kids were in dance class I absolutely fell in love with this one kid and his spot-on imitation of a prairie chicken, bobbing his head up and down and from side to side in perfect motions.

Drum groups too are competing for prizes. The singers and drummers circle huge drums and the effort is so exhausting that groups take turns every couple of songs. I learned at a recent history conference that the drum beat represents the heart beat of Mother Earth. The rhythms are determined by the type of dance competition, with traditional competitions being slower and more melodic. Drum groups have their fans as well, some of them were so surrounded by groupies that you couldn’t even see them from above! It is not uncommon to see a singer/drummer in dressed in Native garb pounding on his band’s drum in between dance competitions!

At times the music became so fast and so frenzied with the dancers circling the arena, that it fairly took my breath away just to be watching. The noise, movement, and colors not found in nature all contributing to the exuberance of the moment.

No wonder settlers in Dakota Territory were terrified by the Ghost Dance in 1890. With no knowledge of what the steps represented or what the songs meant, they simply panicked. Unfortunately, the white settlers assumed all dances were war dances, and their ignorance – fanned by enthusiastic but misguided journalists, and equally ignorant Indian agents – caused one of the most preventable, and worst massacres in American history. (To read more about the Wounded Knee Massacre)

There is more – oh, so much more. But I’ve already exceeded my usual space, so we will have to take up the ever-fascinating subject of pow wows in another space and another time. Perhaps after this year’s Black Hills pow wow!

* Actually, pow wow participants frown on the word “costume”, since all dance regalia is based on traditional Native American attire. Native Peoples Magazine explains it this way: “It’s okay to admire a dancer’s clothing but a travesty to call it a costume…. It’s better to refer to the dance clothing as outfits or regalia.”

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