Native American Pow Wow

In June I attended a Pow Wow in Parshall, North Dakota with our daughter Jana and our granddaughter Anwen. Although I was raised in the area, I'd only been to two, and Jana and Anwen had never seen one, although Jana had been to potlatches, similar celebrations in Alaska. (She was even one of the honorees at a potlatch put on for the new teachers in the Yup'ik village of Alalanuk.)

A large circular area was surrounded by covered seating. The dancers circle "sun-wise" or clockwise.

Pow wows last from one to seven days. They begin with the Grand Entry, where the Eagle Staff and the flags are carried in (by veterans if possible,) and the dancing participants march in accompanied by a special opening song by the "host drum."

The Eagle Staff is a curved stick somewhat like a shepherd's staff wrapped in otter or buffalo hide, and displayed with eagle feathers. This represents a tribe or tribes.

Pow wows are social gatherings of Native American communities, to dance, sing, socialize, and honor their cultures. They began in the early 1800s honoring returning war heroes or religious ceremonies . In more recent times, the public pow wows have dancing and drumming competitions, while the honoring and naming ceremonies are done in private.

The music is performed by the "drum," a group who plays the drum and sing/chant. "Vocables" are sounds without words. When tribes shared songs with other tribes who didn't understand their language, they used vocables to sing them. I didn't understand any words coming they sang.

The special drum is made of deer, elk, horse or buffalo hides, and is considered to have its own spirit. In some traditions, the sound of the drum represents the heartbeat. Listening to the mesmerizing tones, I could certainly see why.

Someone told me there was stiff competition among the "drum" participants, who were competing in shifts for significant prize money. I was impressed with their skill.

This was a drum for sale. (Can't remember the price, but it was far above my budget.)

Two common decorations are beads and quills. (Porcupines are considered lucky, with a minor animal spirit.) Shells are used by tribes near water.

Regalia, the outfits worn by the participants--the word "costume" is considered derogatory to some--used to be primarily buckskin, but now often cotton.

The Master of Ceremonies at this Parshall pow wow was amazing. Cheerful and excited, he had something interesting and complimentary to say about each group that performed. He encouraged the kids to stay in school, be respective, work hard, etc.

The Men's Fancy Dance, usually the biggest crowd pleaser with their leaps and spins, is fairly recent--starting in the early 1900s. Older traditional men's dances represented war parties returning and "dancing out" the battle stories. Hunters would return and dance out the story of their hunt. Their movements were more subtle, imitating birds and animals. Their regalia was more subdued.

Traditional women's dances had precise movements, highly controlled. Their regalia represented the area they lived in.

The Grass Dance has regalia with long flowing fringes, to represent the grass blowing in the wind. Original grass dancers used grass tucked in their belts.

The Women's Fancy Shawl dance is characterized by elaborate styles and rapid spins.

The Jingle Dance is a dance of healing. Hundreds of small tin cones on the regalia jingle during the dance. Original cones were made from rolling tobacco can lids.

Neon colors are recent. (I could almost hear those old warriors muttering, "those kids!")

Even though the skill of the adults was incredible, the little kids stole my heart. I can't imagine how many hours it takes to master these steps. And the heavy regalia looked warm to wear in the exertion of the dancing.

Outside of the arena were vendors. Some sold food (Anwen and I had an Indian taco--I loved the ones served in New Town years ago!--and Jana had frybread and chili.) Other booths sold regalia, beaded jewelry, leather crafts, artwork, and beautifully made drums and flutes.

Although pow wows have changed much through the years, they are still gatherings where native Indians can share tribal traditions and culture.

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