(Chief Walks has 61 years of powwow experience. He was a Dancer in his youth. Now a Drummer/Singer and Arena Director.)
The powwow is the Native American’s way of meeting together to join in dancing, singing, visiting, renewing old friendships and making new ones. This is a time to renew thoughts of the old ways and to reserve a rich heritage.
The Poncas were the first to practice this ceremony, which they call the Hethuska, as early as 1804. They passed the Hethuska to the Kaw, and they in turn gave the dance to the Osage, who named it the “Inlonschka”. The Omaha then acquired the ceremony and spread it north to the Lakota (Sioux) tribe who popularized it on reservations in the late 1890’s. In this time, the “Omaha”, or “Grass” dance as it was then called, spread faster than the more famous Ghost Dance of the same time. Unlike ceremonial dances of other tribes, the Grass dancers danced for the purpose of dancing itself, instead of as a religious ceremony.
Dances have always been an important part of the life of the Native American. Over the years, dance styles and content have changed, their meaning and importance have not. There is a belief held by some in the Native American community that when they were forced onto reservations, they were also forced to have dances for the public to come and see. Before each dance, they were led through the town in a parade. This, according to some, was the beginning of the modern powwow.
Powwow singers are also very important figures in the Native American culture. Without them, there would be no dancing. The songs are of many varieties, from religious to war to social. As various tribes gathered together, they would share their songs, often changing the songs so singers of different tribes could join in. With these changes came the use of “vocables” to replace the words of the old songs. Thus, some songs today are sung in “vocables” with no words. Yet, they still hold special meaning to those who know the song. They are reminders to Native Americans of their old ways and rich heritage.
In the 1920’s, some powwows became “inter-tribal,” meaning that they were open for all tribes to attend, and the practice of “contesting” began. Contesting involves dance competitions that may last all weekend, taking into account how often dancers dance as well as how well they may dance. The prizes can run into the thousands of dollars.
World War II brought a revival to the powwow world. Ever since, powwows have been growing, constantly changing and adapting to modern ways, while retaining their cultural roots. Brighter colors, more motions and even a new style of dance have emerged from the passage of time. The Native American culture is not dead and fixed under the glass of a museum. It is, instead, a living culture, retaining its heritage and advancing with the times.
Planning for a pow-wow generally begins months, perhaps even a year, in advance of the event by a group of people usually referred to as a pow-wow committee. Pow wows may be sponsored by a tribal organization, by an American Native community within an urban area, a Native American Studies program or American Native club on a college or university campus, tribe, or any other organization that can provide startup funds, insurance, and volunteer workers.
A pow-wow committee consists of a number of individuals who do all the planning prior to the event. If a pow-wow has a sponsor, such as a tribe, college, or organization, many or all members of the committee may come from that group. The committee is responsible to recruit and hire the head staff, publicize the pow-wow, secure a location, and recruit vendors who pay for the right to set up and sell food or merchandise at the pow-wow.
The head staff of a pow-wow are the people who run the event on the day or days it actually occurs. They are generally hired by the pow-wow committee several months in advance, as the quality of the head staff can have an impact on attendance. To be chosen as part of the head staff is an honor, showing respect for the person's skills or dedication.
The arena director is the person in charge during the pow-wow. Sometimes the arena director is referred to as the whip man, sometimes the whip man is the arena director's assistant, and many pow-wows don't have a whip man. The arena director makes sure dancers are dancing during the pow-wow and that the drum groups know what type of song to sing. If there are contests the arena director is ultimately responsible for providing judges, though he often has another assistant who is the head judge. The arena director is also responsible for organizing any ceremonies that may be required during the pow-wow, such as when an eagle feather is dropped, and others as required. One of the main duties of the arena director is to ensure that the dance arena is treated with the proper respect from visitors to the pow wow.
Master of ceremonies
The master of ceremonies, or MC, is the voice of the pow-wow. It is his job to keep the singers, dancers, and general public informed as to what is happening. The MC sets the schedule of events, and maintains the drum rotation, or order of when each drum group gets to sing. The MC is also responsible for filling any dead air time that may occur during the pow-wow, often with jokes. The MC often runs any raffles or other contests that may happen during the pow-wow.
The head dancers consist of the Head Man Dancer and the Head Woman Dancer, and often Head Teen Dancers, Head Little Boy and Girl Dancers, Head Golden Age Dancers, and a Head Gourd Dancer if the pow-wow has a Gourd Dance. The head dancers lead the other dancers in the grand entry or parade of dancers that opens a pow-wow. In many cases, the head dancers are also responsible for leading the dancers during songs, and often dancers will not enter the arena unless the head dancers are already out dancing.
Music for pow-wow dance competition and other activities is provided by a "Drum," a group of performers who play a large, specially designed drum and sing traditional songs. The number of members of a drum group may vary, but is usually at least four people, and can be far more. Some members of the drum group may wear traditional regalia and dance as well as drum, other times drummers simply wear street clothing. Drums usually rotate the duty of providing songs for the dancers, each taking a turn at the direction of the pow-wow management.
The Host Drum of the pow-wow is a drum group primarily responsible for providing music for the dancers to dance to. At an Intertribal pow-wow, two or more drums are hired to be the host drums. In some places there is a Host Northern Drum and a Host Southern Drum. Depending on the size of the pow-wow and the region where it is held, there may be many drums, representing nearly every tribe or community attending the pow-wow. At some pow-wows, the drums are judged on the quality of their performances, with prize money awarded to the winners.
Each drum has a Lead Singer who runs his or her drum and leads the singers while singing. Host drums are responsible for singing the songs at the beginning and end of a pow-wow session, generally a starting song, the grand entry song, a flag song, and a veterans or victory song to start the pow-wow, and a flag song, retreat song and closing song to end the pow-wow. Additionally, if a pow-wow has gourd dancing, the Southern Host Drum is often the drum that sings all the gourd songs, though another drum can perform them. The host drums are often called upon to sing special songs during the pow-wow.
A pow-wow is often set up as a series of large circles. The center circle is the dance arena, outside of which is a larger circle consisting of the MC's table, drum groups, and sitting areas for dancers and their families. Beyond these two circles for participants is an area for spectators, while outside of all are designated areas with vendor's booths, where one can buy food (including frybread and Indian tacos), music, jewelry, souvenirs, arts and crafts, beadwork, leather, and regalia supplies.
At outdoor pow-wows, this circle is often covered by either a committee-built arbor or tent, or each group, particularly the MC and the drums, will provide their own. While most of the time, a tent provides shelter from the sun, rain can also plague outdoor events. It is particularly important to protect the drums used by the drum groups, as they are sensitive to temperature changes and, if it rains, they cannot get wet. Most vendors provide their own tents or shelters at an outdoor pow-wow.
Powwow etiquette is required; such as rules for when photography is or is not acceptable, protocol for the Grand Entry, and so on. A few guidelines are common; clothing worn by participants is known as "regalia" and not to be called a "costume." Some rules are for common sense courtesy: drums have special rules and should not be touched or played by those not a part of the drum group. People and their regalia should not be touched without permission. However, details of powwow etiquette vary from one geographic region to another.
The Eagle Staff leads the Grand Entry
A pow-wow session begins with the Grand Entry and, in most cases, a prayer. The Eagle Staff leads the Grand Entry, followed by flags, then the dancers, while one of the host drums sings an opening song. This event is sacred in nature; some pow-wows do not allow filming or photography during this time, though others allow it.
If military veterans or active duty soldiers are present, they often carry the flags and eagle staffs. They are followed by the head dancers, then the remaining dancers usually enter the arena in a specific order: Men's Traditional, Men's Grass Dance, Men's Fancy, Women's Traditional, Women's Jingle, and Women's Fancy. Teens and small children then follow in the same order. Following the Grand Entry, the MC 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.
Most of the various types of dances performed at a pow-wow are descended from the dances of the Plains tribes of Canada and the United States. Besides those for the opening and closing of a pow-wow session, the most common is the intertribal, where a drum will sing a song and anyone who wants to can come and dance. Similar dances are the round dance; crow hop when performed by a northern drum or a horse stealing song by a southern drum; there is also "double beat", "sneakup" and, for Women's Traditional and Jingle, "sidestep". Each of these songs have a different step to be used during them, but are open for dancers of any style.
In addition to the open dances, contest dances for a particular style and age group are often held, with the top winners receiving a cash prize. To compete in a contest, the dancer must be in regalia appropriate for the competition. Larger powwows have more specific categories.
"Good drums get the dancers out there, good songs get them to dance well. Without drum groups there is no music. No music, no dance, no powwow."
There may be many drums at a powwow, especially weekend or week long ones, but each powwow features a host drum which is accorded great respect and the most authority. The members of drum groups are often family, extended family, or friends. Groups are then often named for families, geographic locations, tribal societies, or more colorful names. Many groups display their names on jackets, caps, vehicles, and chairs. Traditionally only men would drum and women would sit behind the men singing high harmonies. Beginning in the mid-1970s, women began drumming with men and seconding, or singing, an octave higher, the song. Today, there are mixed-gender and all-female drum groups.
The supplies a drum group carries include the drum, rawhide headed, a cloth bag for padded drum sticks, the drum stand, folding chairs for sitting, and, in some cases, a public address system. The drum head, stand, microphone stands, and PA box are often decorated with paintings or eagle feathers, fur, flags, and strips of colored cloth.
An all-woman Drum group
Readily noticeable in performances are the "hard beats" used to indicate sections of the song. The "traditional method" consists of a pronounced strike by all singers every other beat. These may appear in the first or second line of a song, the end of a section, before the repetition of a song. A cluster of three hard beats (on consecutive beats) may be used at the end of a series of hard beats, while a few beats in the first line of a song indicate performer enthusiasm. In the "Hot Five" method five beats are used, with the first hard beat four beats before the second, after which the beats alternate.
To understand drum protocol, a drum may be thought of as a person or being and is to be regarded and respected as such. Drum etiquette is highly important. There are regional variations. The drum is the central symbol of Oklahoma powwows and is located in the center of the dance floor and powwow (which are themselves shaped in concentric circles). Southern drums are suspended by four posts, one for each direction. Northern drums are set up on the outside of the dance area, with the host drum in the best position. Drummer-singers are expected to remain at their drum and ready to sing at any moment's notice; a dancer might approach the drum and whistle, fan or gesture his staff over a drum to indicate his request for a song even if it is not that drum group's turn to sing. In some regions it is considered disrespectful to leave a drum completely unattended. Some drum groups do not allow females to sit down at their drum but welcome them to stand behind the drummers and sing backup harmonies; the reasons for this point vaguely to a variety of tribal stories that attempt to tell the history of drumming as each group understands it. People bring water to the drummers and generally assist the players as needed. (It is also considered a taboo among some nations to discuss spiritual teachings in writing or to name absolute authority in reference to spiritual teachings.) The drum is offered gifts of tobacco during giveaways and musicians acknowledge this by standing.
While the drum is central to pow-wows, "the drum only helps them keep beat. Dancers key on the melody of the song. Rhythms, tones, pitch all help create their 'moves'." Note that Bill Runs Above did not mention the lyrics of the songs, and while they are no doubt important, most lyrics of most songs employ vocables, syllable sounds such as "ya", "hey", and "loi". This is particularly evident in intertribal songs, such as the AIM Song, which cannot be biased towards a certain language.
The song structure consists of four pushups, singing the chorus and verse through four times. In each chorus the melody is introduced or led off by the lead singer whose is then seconded by another singer who begins to vary the melody before the end of the leader's first line. They are then joined by the entire chorus for the rest of the pushup. Three down strokes or hard beats mark the end of the chorus and beginning of the verse, and during these drummers while alter their dancing such as by hopping low like fancy dancers. An increase in tempo and volume on the last five beats marks the end of the final verse. The dancing stops on the final beat and then a tail, or coda, finishes the song with a shortened chorus. Sometimes a drum group will sing the song more than four times, particularly when the song feels good and the singers seize the moment for an extra pushup or two (or more), or when a dancer blows a whistle or passes his staff or fan over the drum to signal that the song is to be continued four extra pushups while he prays.
Singing differs by region in that a high falsetto produced deep in one's throat is used in the north while in the south a lower range is used. "To the unfamiliar listener, Indian singing sounds exotic, different, and difficult to comprehend," and the contrast in the quality or timbre of voice used in traditional Indian and European musics may have much to do with that difficulty. However, "to the trained ear, melodies flow, ascend and descend" while dancers react to changes in the structure of the melody and the song. Boye Ladd says, "If you give me a stink song, I'll dance stink. If you give me good music, I'll give you a great show," implying that one can appreciate the music through the dancing, which is readily appreciated by everyone. But others say that today's contemporary contest dancers are expected to dance their best no matter how well or poor the drum group is that is singing for their contest. Generally, Native American singing follows a pentatonic scale (as if playing only the black keys on a piano) and while, to the outsider, it may sound like we're just pounding a drum and going "Heya-heya-heya-heya" sometimes there are actual words in Cree, Pikuni, Lushuutsid, Niimipuu, Lakhota, Sahpatin, Salish, Ojibwemowin or many other Native languages.
Talented singers also sing off-the-beat, placing the words between the drum beats rather than on them, which "is probably the non-Indian's greatest obstacle in trying to learn Indian songs."
Genres and change
In the 1970s drums had begun incorporating native words in addition to vocables. Groups such as the Black Lodge Singers have released songs with English words, such as on their children's albums. Given the inter-tribal style of powwow music it may be viewed as less traditional or valuable though the music is also used to support tribal identity and display the value of a living culture.
13) Giveaways, attributes of Indian generosity, are held at many dances. They are acknowledgments of appreciation to recipients for honor or service given to the people. When receiving a gift, the recipient thanks everyone involved in the giving.
14) If you wish to ask for a special song from a drum, talk to the Area Director first and make sure the Master of Ceremonies is informed. It is traditional to make a gift (monetary or otherwise) to the Drum for special requests.
15) Before sitting at a drum, ask permission from the Head singer. Do not touch a drum without permission.
16) If at any time you are uncertain of procedure, etc., please check with the MC, Arena Director, or Head Singer. They will be glad to help you with your questions.
17) Unless you are sure spectator seating will be provided, bring a chair. Remember that the seating immediately around the Arena is for dancers only.
18) Alcohol, recreational drugs and firearms are prohibited at most Pow Wows.
19) If you see a lost feather, or you yourself drop a feather, do NOT pick it up. Notify the nearest Veteran, the Head Veteran, Head Man Dancer or Arena Director immediately.
20) Before dancing barefoot speak with the Arena Director. At some events this may only be done by Sundancers known to the organizers.
21) In some places it is OK for adults to dance while carrying infants or small children. In other places this is considered contrary to local etiquette. Ask before doing so.
22) If you have a question, ask. Most dancers, singers, elders and staff are happy to help. Offer a cold drink or other small, symbolic gift to those who help you.
Why we dance:
To dance is to pray, to pray is to heal, to heal is to give, to give is to live, to live is to dance.
"Music and dance are representatives of the full range of life for American Indians. They are integral fuels that have always fed the fires of honor and traditions.
Dances for victory were often held by each team before stickball matches, and always in preparation for war.
Many of the Southeastern American Indian dances, such as the Quail Dance and the Guinea Dance, were named after animals in the belief that the movements affect the animals and their relations with humans.
Rituals, such as the Cherokee Green Corn Ceremony held each year to signify rebirth, forgiveness, and new beginnings, includes interludes of dancing. The Ribbon Dance is an annual ceremony that praises and reaffirms the role of women in the Creek (Muskogee) tribe.
American Indian dance is not a form of mindless amusement.
It is a form of praise, worship, and a way to experience interconnectedness through motion. Dancing is an art that was here before the conception of art ever existed. It is a necessity for Indian people. A necessary spiritual action requiring dedication and a devout sense of reverence.
When American Indians dance, whether it be at powwows or other gatherings, all senses become heightened as cultural chants, drummings and songs fill the air. These haunting, mystical sounds transport the imagination to other times and places.
The drum - its round form representing the shape of the sacred universe - emits strong, steady heartbeats that bring entrancement through repetition. This enables the dancers to put to rest the distractions of worries and cares of everyday life so that they may become one with all.
Dancers from different nations in splendorous regalia dance the spirituality of their cultures into being as they pay homage to an ancestral tradition as sacred and important as rain. Agile and full of purpose, their artistic movements bring chills to the soul.
Serious dance is prayer that can open a doorway to a connection with the total universe. A way to find that "inner being" who recognizes and appreciates the spiritual essence of interdependence and gratefully ask Creator for recognition of the needs of his or her people in return.
Some dances that were thought forgotten are being danced again. Many American Indians travel the powwow circuit not only to earn a living, but also as beautiful representatives of their nations. Of course, there are those who dance mainly for the onlookers and attention they may receive.
These dancers are easily spotted by sensitive Indians, and it is my hope that they will come to realize that ego has no place in honoring the spirituality of traditions.
Those who dance as an offering to Creator are keeping traditions alive and setting reverent examples for the young people of their nations. They are the ones who realize that to dance is to pray, to pray is to heal, to heal is to give, to give is to live, and to live is to dance.
To these dancers, I say "Dance on and on and on ...we need your rhythmic, heartfelt prayers."
Styles of Dance Regalia
Ladies Cloth Dress
This style of dress has many different looks. Many of the Eastern & Southeastern tribes wear long full cotton dresses, or skirts worn with cape-like blouses. Many women of the Woodland tribes wear a form of appliqué on their skirts and shawls called "ribbonwork". This term refers to wide bands of appliqué that were originally created by using brightly-colored wide silk ribbons, layered on top of each other, with designs cut out of the topmost layers. Many of the Plains and Plateau tribes wear T-dresses, an "Indian" version of a one-piece A-line dress with large open sleeves, which may have intricate designs sewn or beaded onto them. Southwestern tribes such as the Navaho are often distinguished by an abundance of turquoise and silver jewelry.
The styles worn by women are the most tribally-distinctive clothing seen in the pow-wow circuit. A knowledgeable person can often determine the tribe of the wearer by her outfit. Many dancers dance with very dignified, graceful steps. Some of the Northern tribes will dance in place, doing a graceful "bounce" to the rhythm of the drum. Ladies dressed in cloth may or may not wear eagle plumes or feathers, and otter-fur hair extensions, depending on their tribe‘s style and personal preference
.Ladies Buckskin Dress
There are two distinct styles in this category, Northern and Southern. A Southern buckskin outfit consists of a partially-beaded skirt, top, high-top boot moccasins, a southern-style purse, dance shawl, and an feather dance fan. The dancers often wear chokers, beaded hair ties and fur hair extensions. The styles of beadwork differ greatly among the tribes, and although these dresses may have extensive beadwork, the tops are not fully-beaded. Modern dresses have very long fringes hanging from their sleeves. Southern dancers will dance with very dignified, graceful steps around the arena.
Most of the Northern-style dresses have fully-beaded tops, and are often worn with fully-beaded moccasins and separate leggings. The tops have very long fringes hanging from their sleeves, and the dancer will generally carry a fully-beaded purse, a dance shawl, and an eagle feather fan. Occasionally, a Northern dancer will have a wool broadcloth skirt instead of a skin one, or have a cloth dress top which appears very similar to a fully-beaded top. Many of the Northern dancers will dance in place, doing a graceful "bounce" to the rhythm of the drum. Most wear eagle plumes and/or an eagle feather in their hair, and usually wear chokers, beaded hair ties, and otter-fur hair extensions.
Ladies Fancy Shawl
This is a modern style of dance, introduced in the 1960’s, when it was often called "Graceful Shawl". The story I’ve heard is that the women were so moved by the music, that they began to dance in a more energetic style, some saying that their open shawl represents the wings of a butterfly. It is very popular among the younger girls and women. They wear a yoke or vest/yoke combination which is either beaded or elaborately-appliquéd or sequined, a flared knee-length skirt, and a shawl opened wide over their shoulders and held at the edges in both hands. They also wear leggings which are beaded or elaborately-appliquéd cloth or sequins, and beaded moccasins. They usually wear eagle plumes and/or feathers, and long ribbon streamers hanging from their beaded hair ties.
Ladies Jingle Dress
This dress originated with the Ojibway tribes in Canada, but has spread throughout pow-wow country. It is often called an "medicine" dress, as it was originally conceived in the vision of a medicine man, as a means to heal a dying girl, who recovered and lived to an old age. This dress is made with hundreds of small rolled tin cones, originally made from Copenhagen tobacco tin lids, sewn into rows on the dresses. They make a beautiful soft "swishing" noise as the ladies dance, and these dresses are quite heavy. Most dancers today still respect the origins of this dance, and ask for permission from a member of one of these original tribes to wear this dress. In the Northern country, ladies will still dance this style clear into their seventies.
Mens Southern Straight or Southern Traditional
This dance is widely known as "The Pride of Oklahoma", and is often announced as such at pow-wows. This graceful, dignified style comes from the dances done by the warrior societies of old. The dancer "tells a story", tracking his prey or enemy, pointing to tracks along the way. The traditional style of this dance is smooth and graceful, and the dancer is supposed to land on the left foot on the last beat of the song. The jerky, aggressive hopping or skipping sometimes seen today is done by unknowledgeable dancers, or those determined to catch the attention of the judges in a contest.
The outfit consists of front and back knee-length wool broadcloth aprons and a back "tail" which hangs to the ground. An "otter" or "hair plate" drop is worn down the back, extending from the neck to the ground, trailing behind the dancer. Cloth or buckskin leggings are worn over close-fitting bike shorts. The dancer may wear a traditional ribbon shirt, a vest, bandoliers and a bone breastplate. Headgear of a porcupine-hair roach or otter turban and a neck scarf completes the outfit. A dance stick and eagle feather fan are carried, and a "tobacco" pouch may be carried to hold cigarettes, money, and keys.
Mens Northern Traditional
This is the Northern equivalent of a Southern Straight dancer, with a few important differences. Northern traditional dancers may wear skin aprons instead of wool, and they don’t have the long "tail" attached to their aprons like a Southern Straight dancer. A trailer is attached to their eagle feather bustle which is worn at the back of the waist. Most wear fully-beaded side-drops over their aprons. Their leggings, if worn, are usually made of skins. They may wear ribbon shirts or vest, beaded yokes, breastplates, and a porcupine-hair roach. Some tribes may wear an eagle or hawk-feather cap, or an appropriate animal skin as a headdress. They dance with an eagle staff, war lance, or the like, a shield, and an eagle-feather fan. They dance in a rather aggressive manner, in step with the drum, telling the story of a battle or tracking a prey as they dance. They will often be featured doing a "sneak-up" dance, crouching before the attack. Some people say this dance style originated with he Omaha tribe in Nebraska.
Mens Fancy War Dance
This is a modern style, often said to represent the modern pow-wow. It originated in the "Wild West" shows in Oklahoma around the turn of the century as a showy, attention-getting spectacle for the trainloads of crowds from eastern cities who traveled to Oklahoma to see what was left of the "wild frontier". All of us Okies know who the original dancers were, and their fame lives on long after their passing. This is a very fast, energetic style danced by mostly younger men. The dancers wear two bustles, one at the waist and one at the back of the shoulders. These may be eagle feathers, or colorful dyed feathers with ribbon or horse-hair streamers hanging from the tips of the feathers. They usually dance to "trick" songs that have abrupt stops, trying to "trick" the dancers into messing up and over-stepping the end of the song.
Men's Grass Dance
This is a very old, traditional dance, whose origins go back long before memory. Some say these dancers originally flattened the tall prairie or buffalo grass for an upcoming dance, or for a new campsite for the tribe. Others say it originated with warriors sneaking up in the tall grass. Whatever the origins, it is a popular and colorful dance today. The dancers wear shirts or yokes and long aprons, with yarn or ribbon sewn onto them to resemble long grass tufts. Their dance is supposed to imitate the grass blowing in the breeze, long and willowy, with fairly graceful swaying movements. They wear pants with yarn sews onto legs also, and may wear a breastplate, loop necklace, or beaded "harness" in front. A porcupine hair roach, eagle feather fan, and neck scarf completes the outfit.
EXAMPLES OF WAR DANCES & SOCIAL DANCES
WILL BE FOUND UNDER "PAGES" TO THE RIGHT.
Entering The Circle
This section is for new dancers, who have not grown up around the pow-wow arena.
Many tribes did not originally take part in pow-wows, particularly those living in the eastern United States. However, today, many descendants of these tribes are wanting to enter the dance arena. It would be best to learn from an Indian who has been around the pow-wow arena a long time. However, some of these people have no family or friends to learn the ropes from, as those of us in "Indian Country" have. So be very wary of listening to anyone who dyes their hair black, calls themselves names like "Pale Moon Dove" or "Two Bears Standing", or in any other way doesn't seem legitimate. They probably aren't. For those of you who don't have anyone to learn from, here are a few tips to help you along.
When new dancers are getting ready to enter the pow-wow arena, there are several things that they should be aware of, and traditions that they should follow. It is of the utmost importance to be sure that you are dancing, dressing, and following traditions properly. Real Indians don’t just "jump in".
Dancers who are new to the pow-wow circuit should always discuss their regalia ideas with experienced pow-wow dancers before starting on anything, to be sure that the regalia they are planning to put together will be correct. Leave the cheap white & black-dipped "eagle" feathers, cheap beadwork, and pseudo-Indian-looking stuff to the "wanna-bees". They don’t belong on real Indian regalia, and are sure to be the subject of mocking and ridicule from other dancers and on-lookers. Schedule your vacation to attend one of the really big pow-wows, or one in "Indian Country", before you start on your regalia.
FEATHERS: There are excellent (and legal ) realistic imitation hawk and eagle feathers available from traders at pow-wows, or by mail-order, for those who don’t have access to the real feathers. Turkey or macaw feathers also make beautiful fans. Many Indian ladies carry macaw fans. These alternatives are a safe bet for those who are not card-carrying members of a Federally Recognized tribe. Be aware that Fish & Game officers occasionally (often) attend pow-wows outside of "Indian Country", looking for real eagle & hawk feathers used by folks who are not obviously Indian, and checking that those people have a legal right to use them. If you are stopped, at the very least, they will confiscate your feathers. At worst, they could arrest you, and the fines can be thousands of dollars. Don’t risk it. We know non-registered people that this has happened to, and they were prosecuted and fined HEAVILY. And don’t even THINK about buying real eagle or hawk feathers from someone selling them. Agents might be watching them, and if they are caught, you’ll be in hot water too.
REGALIA: Complete and proper full regalia often costs a great deal of time and/or money. For example, a man’s roach now runs over $300, and banded-selvedge wool broadcloth runs around $75 per yard. Southern buckskin beaded dresses will run over $4000. If you aren’t prepared to invest at least a few hundred dollars, stick with nice ribbon shirts and shawls. They are always acceptable, and are infinitely more respectful than wearing a half-baked attempt at regalia. Those who aren’t of Indian descent don’t usually dress in regalia unless they are married-to or adopted-by an Indian, but it is perfectly acceptable for anyone to wear a nice ribbon shirt or ladies pow-wow shawl.
GIVEAWAYS: When entering the pow-wow dance arena in regalia for the first time, most Indians "pay their way into the arena" with a formal "special" or give-away. If you are not of a Plains Indian tribe, you may not be required by your own tribal traditions to have a formal giveaway, but most dancers entering the circle today do anyway. If you are not required to and choose not to have a formal giveaway, you will still want to honor the tradition of "paying your way into the arena" with sincere and generous gifts of cash, food, and/or shawls/blankets to the organization sponsoring the dance, and singers at the drum. It is a privilege to dance in the circle, and honoring traditions is the Indian Way, even if it isn’t YOUR tradition. Remember that with Indians, it isn’t how wealthy you are, but how generous you are that counts.
You will normally want to give nice gifts to the Head Man and Head Lady Dancers, Head Gourd Dancer (if any), any Little Boy or Little Girl. Head Dancers, Emcee, Arena Directors, Head Singer, Head Gourd Dance Singer (if any), the Host Drum (the singers themselves), the Princess (if any), and the Host Organization (who is holding the dance). You can usually look on the flyers to see who will be filling these positions.
Now that you have an idea of how much time, money, and planning is invested in coming into the arena, you can appreciate what goes into making regalia. This is by no means a quick, cheap, or casual undertaking. People often plan giveaways a year in advance, and entire families often help with gathering the gifts. Be sure to thank anyone who honors you by giving you something for you to use for your giveaway. Be sure to consult with an experienced pow-wow person before planning anything, because there are other things to consider once your time is near, such as who will speak for you and your family during your special.
Besides entering the arena, there are many other reasons to have a special/giveaway, such as returning to the arena after a period of mourning for a close relative (often 1 year), a marriage, graduation, birthday, anniversary, honor received, return from military duty, etc.
Onlookers and other dancers may not pay any attention to you if you’re not dancing correctly while wearing street clothes. But you can be certain that once you put on regalia, people will be watching you.
* You must be in full regalia to dance in the Grand Entry, also called Parade-In. The only exception is for people who are members of a host organization or honored guests. Gourd dancers will wear their velvet sashes and bandoliers, and blankets if they have them.
* It is important to be IN STEP during Grand Entry so that all the traditional dancers in the line are in unison. Watch the Head Man/Head Lady Dancers and the experienced dancers. Match your left and right footsteps to their steps.
* Be sure that your steps match the leader in a line of round-dancers. Don’t start your own line. Leave that to the Head Lady Dancer, or other experienced dancers. Inexperienced dancers should fall in down the line.
* After Grand Entry, men do not enter the arena until the Head Man Dancer has entered. Women dancers do not enter the arena until the Head Lady Dancer has entered.
* Stay in time with the drum. Your foot should touch the floor exactly on the hard honor beats. Watch the experienced dancers. During a round-dance or two-step, your left foot should hit the ground on the hard beat. Listen for a hard/long beat alternating with a soft/short beat to identify a round-dance song.
SONGS & DRUMS SOUTHERN DRUMS VS NORTHERN DRUMS
A host southern drum is normally set in the center of the arena in the Oklahoma area. They may or may not be in the center in other regions. Northern drums are always on the perimeter of the arena. Southern songs are sung in lower men’s voices, with the ladies joining in towards the last of a "verse". Northern songs are sung in a much higher voice range, and are often faster than southern songs. The ladies often join in with these songs also.
Most songs consist of a verse that is repeated 4 times. A Grand Entry song may be sung many more times if there are a lot of dancers to enter the arena. A head singer starts the song, and he is "seconded" by another singer. The whole drum group finished the verse, and then this sequence is repeated 3 more times. Listen for 4 "starts".
Southern songs usually have 3 HONOR BEATS in the middle of each verse. Northern songs lack the set of 3 honor beats, but will have "hard" honor beats within the song. Either way, your feet should hit the floor on the hard beats. Ladies dancing in northern buckskin and jingle dress styles may "bless the crowd" by waving their eagle feather fans on the honor beats during northern songs. Experience will tell you teach you how to tell when a song is ending, or listen for 4 "starts".
Ladies dancing in exhibition or contest dances to a southern drum should "bow" on the honor beats. This means to gracefully bend forward on the last of the three honor beats. Continue dancing with small steps and keep your shawl fringe swinging in time. Some ladies may go right, then left. Stay down until the verse is about to end, and then slowly come up just before the next verse is started.
While the pow-wow arena is a sacred circle, it is also a place of laughter, friends and family, and an excellent place to raise children. There are always a few sour-pusses around who may try to discourage a new dancer, but these people are best ignored. If you are dressed properly, dancing correctly, and following the traditional protocol, you can enter the arena with confidence.