What Is A Powwow?

The noun Powwow, from the Narragansett Eastern Algonquian language is defined as any gathering of Native people. However, in Indian Country, we define it as a cultural event that features group singing and dancing by men, women and children. Through these gathering, cultural traditions are passed from generation to generation. Skilled Native American artisans travel across the country to attend various Powwows to display and sell their hand made goods. It is a welcome opportunity to visit with friends and relatives, renew acquaintances, and trade or sell Native arts and crafts including jewelry, pottery, moccasins, ribbon shirts, shawls, dream catchers, and paintings. Above all, Powwows are a time to preserve traditions, to sing to the Creator, and to dance to the heartbeat of the drum.

Powwow Music

Powwow drummers and singers provide the music to which the dancers move in cultural celebration of their heritage. Powwow songs consist of key phrases which are repeated. These phrases may be composed of words or syllables which echo the beat of the drum. There are two basic singing styles – Northern or Southern – named for their geographic divisions. In Northern Style, singers maintain a higher pitch, whereas Southern Style singers keep a lower key. Although there are different categories of songs, the largest song category is that of the War Dance. These songs provide a constant drumbeat, but drummers accent certain beats at specific points on the song. These accented beats are called honor beats. Watch how the dancers react to the honor beats of the drum according to their style of dance and regalia. In any case, drummers and singers respond to the enthusiasm of the dancers. Powwow music is a vital, artistic part of the powwow celebration. As you leave the powwow grounds, you may hear the beating of the drum for several miles down the road.

Native American Dance

Native dances originated from the spirit and soul of our Nations. Native American dance is alive and dynamic, a reflection of tribal heritage and personal style. The graceful steps of the dancers, the beat to which they move, and the traditional regalia that they wear embody their tribal affiliation and ancestry.

As you listen to the drum and watch the dancers, please also take note of the powwow Master of Ceremonies. The powwow emcee has the important responsibility of guiding the dancers and spectators, as well as keeping the program moving. He is fully aware of the powwow program and etiquette. Explaining various traditions, the emcee helps spectators understand the program while encouraging the dancers and drummers. He may even add humor to the event by sharing Native American jokes or stories. An emcee who is experienced serves as the glue that holds the powwow together. Emcees are assisted by the Arena Director whose responsibility is to organize the dancers and maintain the dance arena or circle. In the next few pages, we hope to increase your understanding and appreciation of Native American Dance as a living, cultural art form based on ancient traditions of the first people of the Americas.

Grand Entry & Flag Song

Each powwow begins with a Grand Entry or procession of dancers serving as the “bringing together of tribes.” Dancers enter the dance circle by age and style of regalia. They are guided by two lead dancers, a male and a female, who follow the presentation of flags. Similar to the National Anthem, the Flag Song is the Native American way of honoring traditional native, state, and American flags. The audience is expected to stand during this time. Patriotism and valor are highly respected in Native American culture. These two songs express this respect in a ceremonial way.

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