Revitalizing Native Cultures
Pan-Indian pow wow in LAPan-Indian pow wow in LA

Cherokee stomp danceCherokee stomp dance

Pow Wow Culture

According to folklorist Barre Toelken, the pow wow is "one of the most rapidly growing expressions of ethnic awareness and identity to be found in the world today."

But what specific ethnicity is being expressed? Is a pow wow an expression of identity for members of a particular tribe? Or, is it an expression of a new urban, "Pan-Indian" tribe that borrows bits and pieces of ceremonies, dances and social customs from many tribal traditions? As we see in both of the Indian Country Diaries films, this is still an open question.

Native American tribal people have danced for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Ceremonial dances like the sun dance of the Cheyenne or the women's victory dances of the Kiowa have long traditions.

Pow wow dances evolved from the sacred into the secular world. There's debate over who really started the pow wow tradition, but most practitioners will say that the Southern Poncas were the first to organize these social dances around 1800. They passed the event on to the Kaw, who in turn gave it to the Osage. It traveled up through the Great Plains until the Omaha tribe invented a new style of dance and dress called the "Omaha" or "Grass" Dance. The Omaha claim to sponsor the longest continuously running pow wow in the nation, with a history going back to 1804.

The feeling of the big urban pow wows like the one in Los Angeles can be very different from Stomp Dances held in Cherokee North Carolina. But they come from the same roots.

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In the 1920s tribes started opening their pow wows to other tribes and even whites. They may have been trying to piggyback on the popularity of Wild West Shows of the late 1880s that often featured Indian social dancing.

The pow wow movement grew and expanded well beyond its Great Plains roots. As Mark Anthony Rolo points out in A Seat at the Drum, tribes that never had pow wows in their own traditions now sponsor huge events and put on the regalia of Plains Indians. On any given weekend, there may be scores of events and you need a dedicated web site — like Pow Wows.com — to keep track of all the gatherings.

In many of these intertribal events, there is a similar structure.

  • The pow wow is organized by a committee or a community who hire the "head staff," an arena director, a master of ceremonies (MC), head dancers for each of the types of dance and the host drum groups.

  • Pow wows always begin with the Grand Entry where all the dancers enter the arena in a specific order. First, come Indian veterans carrying the U.S. flag and eagle staffs, followed by the head dancers and then the dancers in a specific order — Men's Traditional, Men's Grass Dance, Men's Fancy, Women's Traditional, Women's Jingle and Women's Fancy, all the way down to tiny tots.

  • When everyone is in, the MC will invite a respected member of the community to give an invocation in that tribe's language. Then, there is a Flag Song (like a national anthem) and the colors are presented.

  • Over the next few hours or few days, the program moves through each style of dance. The MC announces the various dance events, who won if the dances are competitions, and what other pow wows are coming up. He will try to keep the audience entertained in between events — although some commentators say these are mostly bad jokes.

  • At some pow wows, families may ask to hold a "giveaway" or "specials" where friends are honored with gifts and speeches.

  • Finally, at some point, the MC will announce "the intertribal" where anyone who wants to can come and dance.

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