Powwows began over 400 years ago, started by Omaha and Ponca warrior societies. Powwows act as unifying events that overcome geographical isolation to provide intertribal socializing and, as Renya Ramirez writes in her book Native Hubs, they provide “a [safe] space for Indians to renew a sense of Indian culture and identity.” Native foods and art are present on the powwow grounds. The practice of powwow dances is the restoration of a cultural element once been outlawed by the U.S. government. Powwows can be found at fairs, rallies, museums, and colleges. The powwow grounds are a lively, joyous place.
There are a variety of dances at the powwow. The grand entry marks the beginning of the powwow. A color guard of military veterans brings in the flags and eagle staff, and the ceremony continues with a welcome blessing, flag song, victory song, pipe invocation, and an intertribal dance which includes all the participants.
Men’s traditional dancers tell a story with their movement—dancing with quick steps, crouching low to the ground to imitate hunting, tracking an enemy, fighting, or the movements of the prairie bird. The dance does not feature jumping but rather active head and arm movements. The preferred dress includes a roach headdress with a few eagle feathers standing upright and a feather bustle. The dance and associated clothing come from 19th century warrior societies. Warrior societies were in charge of military leadership. They oversaw tribal discipline and planned hunts and associated ceremonies. Each warrior society had its own song and symbol.
Men’s fancy dancers jump and twirl in an athletic and energetic offshoot of the men’s traditional dance. Their eye-catching beadwork, ribbons, and an extra feather bustle at the back of their necks accentuate their complex movements. Native American religious dancing was outlawed in the 1920s, so new dances had to be invented to be performed legally in public. This was how the fancy dance was developed. The dance gained popularity as the powwow circuit was starting to spread across the Plains. Tribes adopting the dance wanted to outdo each other, and new moves within the dance were created. Colorful variation in costumes, face paint, and choreography help individual dancers stand out.
Men’s grass dance features quick and fluid movements to mimic prairie grasses in the wind. They wear shirts and pants heavily fringed with ribbon, cloth, or yarn and may use trick steps to show their balance and agility. Each dance move done on one side must be balanced out on the other side. The movements of the dancers mirror those of tribal scouts flattening tall grass in order to have a flat area for camp or of hunters stalking prey. This style originated in North Dakota in the early 1900s.
Women’s traditional dance is an expression of dignity and grace. Dancers sway and bob to the drum in long buckskin or cloth dresses and shawls. They perform simple steps going forward or even more muted foot movements. This dance comes from an older tradition of women standing outside a dance circle while keeping time with their feet.
Women’s fancy shawl dancers can be recognized by their flashy and athletic styles as they twirl and “float” around the arena, using quick steps and high kicks. This is a more athletic and exuberant dance, similar to men’s fancy dance. They wear cloth dresses, beaded moccasins, and leggings, and their beautifully decorated shawls accentuate every movement.
Women’s jingle dress dancers wear dresses covered with rows of metal cones, which “jingle” as the dancers hop, step, and rock to the music. The jingle dance originated from the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) people of northern Minnesota and has become a very popular powwow dance.
Tiny Tots are the next generation of powwow dancers. This category encourages young children to dance and join in the fun of the powwow.
This year’s Plains Indian Museum Powwow takes place June 20 and 21, 2015.