Originally published in Points West in Summer 1999
By Sara Young
Former Plains Indian Museum Intern
Dance has always played an important role in Plains Indian cultures, as a central element in both religious and secular life. Less than 100 years ago, powwows did not exist as we know them today, though a variety of dance traditions that would eventually evolve into the modern powwow were in place. Among these traditions were summer gatherings of ceremonial and social dances, and warrior society dances held to honor and bring protection upon their members.
Both these traditions, along with many other American Indian practices, underwent severe restrictions during the last century when the United States government, in its effort to prohibit certain Indian ceremonies, banned a number of dance-based traditions. Despite these bans, however, Plains Indian dancing did not entirely disappear.
Ceremonies and dances went “underground” and were held on the far reaches of reservations in secret, or were masked as other types of events entirely. In these forms dance continued to play a part in Plains Indian life, although a quiet one, during this culturally repressive time.
It was not until 1933 that the government lifted its ban and dance could once again take an active, public place in American Indian life. At the end of World War II with the return of Indian soldiers from abroad, the warrior society dances of the past century began to acquire new meaning. These returning warriors were honored at powwows or “Homecoming Dances,” as they were sometimes called on the Southern Plains, which included the songs, dances, and regalia of traditional warrior societies. Outside of the dance arena important social ties and customs were also rebuilt, including the honoring of elders, naming and adoption ceremonies, the reception of families back into public life following a period of mourning, and a general bonding between families and friends.
The general structure of these early powwows resembled the summer dance celebrations of the past century and included the use of a camp crier or announcer, the gathering of families to camp out at celebration grounds, and important social interaction among the participants.
Before 1950, the term “powwow” was used only on the Southern Plains in reference to American Indian gatherings and celebrations of song and dance. However, powwows gained further prominence in the 1950s and 1960s throughout the Plains region when Sioux, Crow, and Blackfeet tribes began to sponsor Intertribal gatherings for fun and dancing. Powwows have continued to grow over the last forty years; whereas 20 years ago most powwows took place on reservations, some of the biggest are now held in convention centers and gyms in large cities around the country.
Today, the powwow is both a community gathering and cultural celebration. It is not a commercial event, nor is it purely “entertainment.” It is an important spiritual and social gathering of people to celebrate American Indian traditions, dance and social customs. Although the warrior societies and early Plains “Homecoming” powwows of the past were primarily the domain of male dancers, today’s powwows are open to everyone: men, women, and even small children. This participation by men and women, “tiny tots” and elders indicates that not only are music and dance alive and well in Plains Indian culture, but that they will continue to play an important role for generations to come. “Honor Dances,” “Specials” and “Giveaways” recognize the importance of families and individuals participating in the powwow and honor them for their commitment.
Powwows help to keep song and dance a very real and contemporary part of Native American life. At the same time, the changes that powwows go through (far example, in dance style, dress attire, and the introduction of contest dancing) help to make them a living art form. It is important to realize that recent innovations and shared styles are not “unauthentic,” as dance dress styles and details still mark personal heritage as well as individual taste. At the powwow visitors often see historic elements of dress combined with very modern elements, such as the use of bright sequins sewn on to more traditional styled dress. Since the dress attire expresses the individuality of each dancer, design elements from a variety of traditional and modern sources are common.
Contest dancing is also an important, though fairly recent, aspect of the modern powwow. At most of the larger powwows on the Northern Plains dancers compete for prizes in categories based on the style of dance that they are participating in: Men’s Traditional, Women’s Traditional, Men’s Fancy, Women’s Fancy Shawl, Men’s Grass, Women’s Jingle Dress, boys or girls versions of adult dances, or Tiny Tots. Dancers compete to catch the judges’ eyes with personal style, footwork falling on the beat of the music, and well-made dance attire. A good dancer is marked by their ability to combine traditional aspects with personal attitude and individuality. In addition, contest dancing encourages participation in the powwow by providing a chance for dancers to offset the high costs of travel and hand-made dance attire with prize money. It also provides the ability for exceptionally gifted dancers to make a living off of their talent, and has created a class of champion powwow dancers who help to draw public attention and participation to the powwow circuit.
The Plains Indian Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West celebrated its 18th year as host of a powwow at the Robbie Powwow grounds on June 19 – 20, 1999, [the year this article was written; in 2015 it celebrates its 34th year]. This event has grown from its small beginnings at the Cody High School football field to a celebration involving the finest of Plains dancers and drum groups, drawing an audience of approximately 5,000 American and international visitors. For the second year in a row, the Plains Indian Museum Powwow has been selected as one of the top 100 events in North America by the American Bus Association, based on the “high level of quality that goes into planning and staging in the event.” In addition to music and dancing, the Plains Indian Museum Powwow will also offer American Indian arts, fry bread, Indian tacos and other foods, as well as an opportunity to visit the Plains Indian Museum. Everyone is invited to experience this cultural tradition for themselves.
Ed. Note: For more information on the 2015 Plains Indian Museum Powwow, click here.