What is a Powwow?
A powwow is considered a celebration of life. It is called Wacipi (WAH CHEE PEE) in the Lakota/Dakota language and Ni-mi-win in Anishinabe (Chippewa/Ojibwa) language. This celebration is a time when people of all ages can gather together, to sing, dance, renew old friendships, make new friends, and share the beauty of life.
Today, there are two styles of powwow celebrations: the traditional powwow and the contest powwow.
The traditional powwow is a social event where tribal ties are encouraged and reinforced. Accomplishments and achievements are acknowledged in a community setting with one's family and friends present to witness and participate in the event. These events are driven by American Indian cultures and are used to pass on traditional values of honor to the young people.
The contest powwow is a recent phenomenon that incorporates tradition into the competition of dancing and singing. Champion dancers and singers from throughout the United States and Canada travel to various powwows throughout the nation to compete for top prizes. The University of North Dakota Indian Association (UNDIA) hosts a contest powwow.
Along with the dancing, the following events and people may be represented at a powwow:
The celebration begins with a prayer or invocation given by an elder or a person designated by the powwow committee or arena director. The elder will pray that everyone will enjoy themselves, have a nice time, have safe travel, and that everything will go well. Additionally, the powwow arena and participants use sage, sweet grass, or cedar to bless themselves, their regalia, and their fellow dancers and singers.
To show respect, you are expected to stand during the prayer.
YOU WILL BE ASKED TO STAND DURING THE PRAYER, GRAND ENTRY, FLAG SONG, VICTORY SONG, AND POSTING OF THE COLOR GUARD. YOU MAY ALSO BE ASKED TO STAND DURING HONOR SONGS FOR INDIVIDUAL AND THEIR FAMILIES.
The Grand Entry is the procession of the participants into the dancing area. The Grand Entry is led by a Honor Guard with the dancers following behind.
This is to honor the eagle staffs, government and tribal flags, veterans, and dancers. Similar to government flags, the eagle staffs may represent tribal nations, organizations, or families.
Our military veterans are respected and honored because they are willing to give their lives to the people. The veterans are given the honored position of being flag bearers, and sometimes called upon to retrieve the eagle feathers.
The drum has its own life. It is made from two once-living beings: the tree and the animal (deer, elk, moose). They gave their life to contribute to our happiness and life. The drum must be treated with respect as it helps people stay in touch with the heartbeat of the mother earth.
As our women are considered to be sacred, it is typically, the men take care of the drum and they are the singers. Women may also sing, but usually they sing behind or away from the drum.
The eagle feather is sacred to Native Americans and usually represents accomplishments by the individual. These eagle feathers should not be touched except by the person who owns them. When an eagle feather falls from the dancer’s regalia, a special ceremony must be performed to retrieve the feather. The fallen feather is said to represent a fallen warrior.
YOU MAY NOT TAKE ANY PICTURES WITH ANY TYPE OF CAMERA OR DO ANY SOUND RECORDING during this ceremony.
The blanket dance is conducted to honor and assist individuals in completing something of worth or who are enduring hardship. People are asked to donate to assist these people.
HONOR SONGS OR GIVEAWAYS
The honor song, usually requested by family members, is done by many tribal nations to recognize the accomplishments of an individual or organization. The person’s family will usually give away gifts to people who helped and/or encouraged their relative in the pursuit of their goals. The value of sharing is important in tribal nations.
INTERTRIBAL SONGS AND DANCE
Intertribal singing and dancing occurs throughout the course of the powwow. These songs are social and everyone is welcome and encouraged to dance. Intertribal dancing occurs after the colors are posted; however, the announcer will usually tell people when this dance is to take place.
You will notice the dancers dance in a circle. As the circle represents the pattern of our life cycle; it has no beginning and no end. It is also believed that the circle brings people together.
FEAST OR MEAL
Visitors have often traveled long distances to participate in powwows. They honor the committee by attending, so the committee will usually provide a meal to thank them for coming.
The meal is open to the public and everyone is welcome. This is one of the common elements that unite all human beings – our need for sustenance – so everyone is invited to eat.
There are six basic categories of contest dances that are further divided into age categories.
Men categories include Traditional Dancing, Grass Dancing, and Fancy Dancing.
Women categories include Traditional Dancing, Jingle Dress Dancing, and Fancy Shawl Dancing
MEN’S TRADITIONAL DANCE
The men’s traditional style of dance is the oldest form of dancing. This manner of dance has many stories of its origin. The most common one is that men dance first to make sure the way is safe for the women and children. This dance is a form of storytelling where each warrior is acting out deeds committed during a battle or a hunt.
The traditional dancers wear headdresses on their heads referred to as a roach. The roaches are made with
porcupine and deer hair intricately woven together. Eagle feathers are worn on top of the roaches. The dancers wear bone breastplates, which were originally used for protection during battle or hunting. The rest of the outfit is comprised of an eagle feather bustle, matching beadwork (cuffs, arm bands, belt with side drops, leg bands, moccasins), apron (the back of the apron has decorative trailers), and chokers made of animal bones. The dancers carry eagle wing fans, shields, or coup sticks decorated with eagle plumes and horsehair in their hands.
MEN’S GRASS DANCE
Every tribe has their own origins and legends of the different dance styles. It has been told that the grass dancers emulate the flowing appearance of the grass on the plains. Another story tells of the grass dancers who were the first to enter the circle, since they respectfully laid the grass down so the other dancers could come out and dance in the circle. The grass dancers use a lot of shoulder, arm, and head movements and every move made on the left side must be made on the right.
The grass dance style is easy to recognize by the striking outfits that are covered from shoulder to ankle with long, thick, bright, multi-colored fringe made of yarn or ribbon. The dancers do not wear feather bustles like the traditional and fancy dancers.
MEN’S FANCY DANCE
This very fast and exciting style of dancing came from the South and is the most contemporary style of dancing today. The songs for this type of dancing are fast and the dancers must know them well because they were written to “trick” the dancer.
Like the traditional dancers, fancy dancers wear headdresses referred to as a roach. However, the fancy dancer will also use a “rocker” on their headdress that makes the eagle feathers bounce back and forth in rhythm with the drum. Dancers wear two large bustles, capes and aprons, and matching belts with side drops, cuffs, and moccasins. They also wear small bustles on their arms, which match the large bustles and belts, and white angora fur around the ankles. They carry sticks decorated with brightly colored feathers and
ribbons. The complete outfit is decorated with multi-colored ribbons to add movement to the dance steps.
WOMEN’S TRADITIONAL DANCE
Each tribe has specific dress and dance styles. The northern plains traditional dancers are sometimes referred to as “stationary” dancers. They dance on the outer edge of the arena and slightly move their feet and gently bend their knees sedately moving up and down in rhythm with the drum.
The women wear dresses that are either made of buckskin or cloth. The buckskin dresses are elaborately decorated with beadwork. The yoke and sleeves of the dresses are completely beaded. The dress may also be decorated with porcupine quillwork, shells, elk teeth, or brass beads. The remainder of the outfit includes matching headbands or crowns, hair ties, purses, moccasins, chokers, earrings, and shawls.
WOMEN’S JINGLE DRESS DANCE
Every tribe has their own origins and legends of the different dance styles. The most common legend for this type of dance is that it is the traditional dance of the Anishinabe (Chippewa/Ojibwa) people. The dress is called the “healing dress.” In the early days, the dancers did not lift their feet off the ground and did not dance backwards or turn all the way around; today, there is almost a “fancy” style used when jingle dress dancing.
The jingle dress dance outfit is comprised of the jingle dress (jingle cones made of chewing tobacco lids), matching beadwork, and a fan. The “old style” jingle dress dancers do not carry a fan or wear eagle plumes or feathers in their hair. There are 365 jingles on a dress, each representing a prayer and a day of the year.
WOMEN’S FANCY SHAWL
This fancy shawl style is the most contemporary of the women’s dance styles. Young women began wearing their shawls instead of draping them over their arms when dressed in their outfits so they could dance to the faster tempo songs sung for the men’s fancy dancers. Some people think that the “fancy” refers to the shawl but it doesn’t; it refers to the footwork. The women must be very light on their feet.
Currently, most shawl dancers wear dresses and matching shawls with elaborate, colorful designs. The outfit is also comprised of matching beadwork (cape, hair ties, barrettes, earrings, belts, moccasins, and leggings). The dancers also wear otter or beaver fur tied to their braids.
Generally, photography is welcome. Some dancers will decline being photographed. Please exercise tact when requesting a photograph.