Pow Wow Stories

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Pow Wows are highly structured occasions at which Indians of different tribes get together to visit, sing, dance, compete, and generally celebrate their shared Native identity. Although they certainly have spiritual content, they are primarily social celebrations.” — Jim Griffith, Pow Wow 101, Tucson Meet Yourself, 2012

Explanations and Comments by
Reva Mariah S. ShieldChief
American Indian Studies Chair
Pawnee Nation College
Skidi Pawnee & Tohono O’odham

Pow Wows, Origins and Distinctions:
Though not a complete picture, modern day pow-wows are the offspring of American Indian Relocation and Termination US policies of the mid 1950s whereupon American Indian Tribes/Tribal Members were promised jobs and training in predominately high populace American cities. Once relocated, many Tribal Members sought the company of other Tribal Members. Barring those ties, many embraced Tribal Members from other Tribal Nations/societies who were often relocated themselves. At their core was the exchange of songs and dances.

Sycuan Pow Wow
Reva Mariah S. ShieldChief’s family participates in Sycuan Pow Wow 2012,
L-r: Uncle, Charles Gover; Nephew, Aaron Gover, Navy, USS Eisenhower;
Cousin, Marvin Paul Hand, Navy.

We can still see some distinctions today. For example: “Men’s Southern Straight.” Another such example might be Woman’s Jingle Dress or Grass Dancing. Depending upon the Tribal Nation, a dancer belongs to and/or borrows (styles himself after), specifics regarding regalia. Roach color, one or two feathers, style of moccasins, ribbon work, designs, colors, breast plates — all these often bear direct relevance to Tribal heritage. In addition, there is the dance itself being most often practiced by those Tribal Nations who were originally of the south and central plains of what is now the United States.

On whether storytelling is important in Pow Wows:
Interesting question. I have never thought about it in such a manner. I like to tell people that I was “born dancing.” I say that because I have no memory of a time in which I did not dance — I grew up with it and as I am Skidi-Pawnee, from an Heluska tradition, more than pow-wow, the war dance tradition and culture are simply a part of me. In addition, Pawnee songs are, for the most part, word songs. Many of them are very old and do tell stories by marking deeds or occasions in which something took place. Do I then think that the importance of story is important to on-lookers, dancers, or singers in that context? Our Pawnee Indian Veterans’ Homecoming celebration is one place where I think that yes, most at the event are going to have some level of appreciation and understanding of the dancing and singing. Certainly, almost any tribe that comes from a tradition of war dancing, will have a predominate mix of participants (dancers and singers) and spectators who will understand. Would I, as a Skidi-Pawnee, have the same understanding at say a, Crow tribal pow-wow event (like Crow Fair)? I’ll be able to have a great deal of appreciation and affinity, but I don’t speak Crow and I don’t understand it either. Hopefully the MC will be someone who speaks the Crow language and will give a good translation and fuller meaning to the activities, should they be exclusively Crow in nature.

Let me add that there are now many tribal members from tribes who do not come from a war dance tradition but who participate in pow-wows. It is both a wonderful and sometimes disconcerting affair for someone like me. It used to be (when I was growing up) that those American Indians who did not come from a dancing (pow-wow and/or war dance) tradition would be “brought into the arena.” In essence, s/he would have a sponsor who danced a similar style of dance who was from such a tradition. Often these mentors will “dress” the person aspiring to dance. And outfit and tutor a person on the etiquette that surrounds a specific dance category, as well as on etiquette found at a pow-wow in general. It is not like that, so much, any more. But, in particular cases, someone might want to allow a close friend to wear his or her specific tribal dress. On such occasions, then, the person doing the sponsoring has a greater responsibility to mentor properly. If the person who is borrowing the dress commits some kind of egregious behavioral or regalia faux pas, it is the mentor who is going to be taken to task, in many cases.

On the unique songs, dance styles and regalia of tribes, their traditions and culture
What is happening: Some dances may imitate particular animals or tasks. I’ve heard folks say that the dance category of Woman’s Fancy Shawl is based upon butterfly movements. Personally I don’t know if I buy that. There is, however, the Buffalo Dance where a specific song is sung (more often at the end of a gourd dance session) where the beat imitates the pounding of the earth as buffalo come down the prairie. Dancers, cued by the beat of the drum, indicate that buffalo are moving/traveling from one area to graze to another. With another shift of the beat, the dancers indicate that buffalo are grazing. Another good example would be the Swan Dance (performed by women). The Swan Dance is a cooperative dance by a number of women. This just described is a rather specialized dance, however…

The role of the MC at Pow Wows
A good MC should know a multitude of things — what a dance category is, what the aesthetic of the dance is in regard to style, men or women, child or teen, what drum names are, and what is the drum style, drum and dance rotations. The MC should know scheduling, where bathrooms, food and vendor booths are located, etc. It is, however, one’s knowledge of the dances, songs, etiquette, head staff and ability to entertain, through additional information and anecdotes, that is the mark of a truly entertaining MC. Being very solid on the dance/drum/singing etiquette of several different tribes is the mark of an expert MC. They are great to find and hear.

Upcoming Pow Wows:

  • Saturday, February 21, 2015
    Golden State Gourd Society Pow Wow
    Sherman Indian High School – Old Gym
    Riverside California
    Blessing of Arena begins 10am
  • March 14 & 15, 2015
    33rd Annual Wa:k Pow Wow
    San Xavier Mission Church
    (on grounds behind Mission)
    Learn more:

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