For centuries, Native American tribes have played an integral role in the history of North America, and their languages, lifestyles and traditions are still very much a part of the cultural landscape. Well before the arrival of European immigrants, tribes held sacred gatherings that gave meaning to things they believe were manifested by a higher power. Among these traditions were Pow Wows – and visitors to the region can still see Pow Wows in Oklahoma and Kansas today.
The original “pau-wau” or “pauau” is often attributed to the language of the Algonquin Indian tribe. The present day version of the word””Pow Wow (sometimes spelled Powwow or powwow)””is recognized as the European/Americanised spelling.
The exact origin of the Pow Wow differs among tribal histories. For example, some tribes held Pow Wows to celebrate significant life changes such as birthdays, reaching adulthood, marriages, and upon death, while others held them in gratitude to the Spirits for a bountiful harvest or successful hunt.
For many tribes, Pow Wows marked the change of seasons, served as healing ceremonies, prepared warriors for battle, or celebrated battle victories. And then there are those who contend that Pow Wows were performances imposed upon Native American tribes by the U.S. government after they were forced to live in designated reservations.
Regardless of their specific origin, Pow Wows (which are not celebrated by all Native American tribes) have continued to thrive as single or intertribal social gatherings designed to renew old kinships, establish new friendships, and preserve Native American traditions.
Today, over 50 Pow Wows take place across the country each year, a great many of them occurring in the Midwest region – including Pow Wows in Oklahoma and Kansas, where large numbers of tribes, including the Sioux, Ponca, Kiowa, Crow and Arapaho, still reside.
Incorporating dancing, singing, prayer and music, every element of a Pow Wow””which can last one day or an entire weekend””possesses a specific function and significance.
It starts with The Grand Entry, or the “bringing together of tribes.” Here, a colourful procession of flags””tribal, POW, U.S. and others””are carried in acknowledgment and remembrance of early tribal opposition to European colonisation, the merging of Native American and U.S. culture, and the many people who fought for freedom on American and foreign soil.
Behind the flag bearers are the triibal elders, chiefs, princesses, Pow Wow officials and other important guests, followed by lines of dancers.
Once inside the celebratory arena, which has been blessed and is considered sacred, the participants form a circle representing the unity of life. Here, a Master of Ceremonies is tasked with directing and guiding every aspect of the Pow Wow ceremony, from the order of the events, to the drummer, dancer, and spectator movements.
Melding Culture and Tradition
One of the most vital and artistic features of any Pow Wow celebration is the music, which is punctuated by ceremonial drumming and singing.
Drumbeats are integral to the Pow Wow experience in that they represent the heartbeat of the Native American people. The drumbeats are also linked to the chosen Pow Wow songs, which feature an array of repeated key phrases accentuated in a dramatic or more subdued fashion, according to the drummers’ enthusiasm and/or the dancers’ movements.
Stunning regalia worn by Pow Wow dancers incorporates items such as feathers, beads, fringe, ribbons, bells, and other adornments. Each possesses deep meaning in familial and tribal pride, and pertains to a particular song, drumbeat, or dance.
The Pow Wow dances are also very distinctive and vary according to the tribal affiliation and the purpose of the event. Designed to embody the participating tribes’ sacred ancestries, they are imbued with their own individual steps, energy, regional significance and overall story.
For example, the Dance of the Jingle Dress is connected to physical healing. Here the jingles, which are made from closely placed metal cones, chime in melodic harmony to invoke the healing spirits.
A True Art Form
Although Pow Wows are celebrated as one of the most sacred Native American traditions, it is important to note that some are also held to help bring awareness to the culture of the host tribe/nation. Pow Wows can also provide much needed financial support by way of admission fees and/or the sale of food, handmade goods and souvenirs.
Many (though not all) Pow Wows in Oklahoma and Kansas are open to the public. Whether as a participant or spectator, it is considered to be an honour to attend one of the most sacred traditions of the first people of the Americas.
Have you experienced any Native American traditions or Pow Wows? Would you visit Pow Wows in Oklahoma or Kansas on your next visit? Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin