What is Pow Wow?

AROUND THE DRUM

Written by Richard Archuleta

A pow wow is a gathering of Indian Nations in a common circle of friendship.

Indian Country is made up of many tribal nations, bands, villages, and pueblos, each with their own traditional tribal beliefs and practices. A pow wow is the common fiber which draws Indian people together. It is a time for sharing with old friends and making new friends; a time for singing and dancing. It is a time for trading; trading craft goods and trading songs.

The term pow wow comes from the Algonquin nation of the Eastern Woodlands, meaning “a gathering of spiritual leaders.” Since the early days, Europeans thought “pow wow” referred to any large gathering of Indian people. Now it is a name often used for Indian celebrations.

Originally, Indian tribes held celebrations to commemorate successful hunts or harvests. Many tribes had ceremonial dances to prepare for war and to celebrate victories. The old tribal War Dance as it was known and is still called today, evolved over the last four or five decades into a contemporary social dance and the pow wow into a social gathering and celebration time.

Many pow wows are held outdoors in summer. Often the dance will begin on Friday evening and run until Sunday evening. Camping is a big part of the pow wow experience. Tents, travel trailers, and “traveling houses” are favorite ways of roughing it on the pow wow trail. Of course, the teepee, the original mobile home of the Plains, is present at most encampments. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee fills the morning air as the “moccasin telegraph” buzzes throughout camp with the latest in Indian Country happenings. Traders and crafts people prepare for another day of trading, a day of sharing stories and just catching up on the most current Indian news and upcoming celebrations.

A pow wow usually begins with a Grand Entry of the dancers. All participantsdance into the circle in their respective categories, led into the arena by a tribal elder or veteran carrying a staff of eagle feathers. The eagle feather staff is the universal symbol and “flag” of Indian people throughout North America. When all dancers are in the circle in their respective categories, a flag song or the national anthem of the Indian people is sung, followed by an invocation by a tribal elder. Then the dance begins with intertribal dancing. This is a time when all dancers, competing or not, can “strut their stuff” displaying their best dancing abilities.

Most pow wows today offer prize money starting at hundreds of dollars up to as high as one million dollars. Although the latter is the exception, a combined prize purse can be anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 at any given celebration. The total prize money is divided by the winners of each category, so a first place prize in any one category can be in the thousands of dollars. Prize money is an attractive incentive for many dancers to go to pow wows. A good dancer that wins prize money in his/her category can create new dance clothes or simply help pay for travel.

The dance competition for women and men is broken down by age group and dance style. These include for men, the traditional, fancy, grass, and most recently, chicken dances; and the women, the traditional, fancy shawl, and jingle dress dances. The “traditional” dance style can sometimes be separated or combined into a Northern and Southern dance style. Age categories include: Golden, Adult, Teens, Juniors, and sometimes Tiny Tots.

Competition dancers, as with any competitive sport, must be in good physical condition. Bicycling, running, and going to the gym are some of the ways top dancers keep in shape. The final rounds of competition on the second or third day of a pow wow require good form and great stamina.

Taos Pueblo