The Pow-wow: Cultural Inclusion, Personal Experience

**Please note: Since paragraphs don’t show up on a blog, I have used bullet points in their stead.

ALSO, please see the post below for sketches and video from the pow-wow

Emily Nott
Prof. Chris Scales
RCAH 320
Feb. 14, 2011

  • “There are three male and three female categories of dance,” I found myself saying, “each is recognizable by differences in movement and regalia.” I was explaining what little I knew about Indigenous music and dance traditions to a friend who had accompanied me to MSU’s  Pow-wow of Love. In reality, although I could categorize certain dancers by their dress and although I knew that the first event would be the Grand Entry, I had no real knowledge of what a Pow-wow was: what to expect, what I would experience, and how I would react. In truth, I think there is something lost in translation when reading about Pow-wows. Although articles introduced me to basic ideas, such as styles of dance and song, and to important concepts, such as the processes behind and tensions underlying the American pow-wow, nothing could have prepared me for the experience itself. There is a staggering difference between analyzing a recorded drumbeat and watching beads and feather bustles move hypnotically, seamlessly connected to the bodies of shifting, twirling dancers while the drum sends vibrations through your whole body. There is a difference between marking the pattern of a Pow-wow song and watching the muscles in a man’s face moves as he sings one, hearing the singers’ voices rise and fall and fill the room. There is no question that pow-wows are a powerful cultural experience, a fascinating expression of indigenous art and identity.
  • However, behind a community-based cultural event of this nature, there are important questions about who comprises the community itself and how the beliefs and ideals of the individuals involved manifest themselves in the event. At the powwow of love, a welcoming attitude broke tribal and generational lines. However, complex cultural forces prevented the line between native and non-native participants from dissolving altogether. At the pow-wow of love, I was able to observe non-natives as well as natives from many tribes dancing and participating together and natives and non-natives alike observing and honoring cultural traditions, some familiar and some unfamiliar. However, as a non-native spectator, I still felt like just that: a spectator, sitting outside, distinctly “other.” Out of fear or respect, I could not say which, I felt indescribably barred from full participation. Nonetheless, the medium of the pow-wow, both as a form of music and dance and as a community event, is well-structured to generate open-minded cultural understanding, learning, and participation across many tribal, cultural, generational, and social lines. I will attempt to examine the nature of the successful, thriving cultural community event I observed, and then the source of the “otherness.”
  • A common phrase over the PA system was “intertribal dance.” The emcee, straining to be heard over the buzzing crowd and jingling regalia of the dancers, was even heard more than once to encourage people to come down and dance, to leave the stands and head for the dance floor. The emcee, right away, displayed his role as a cultural interpreter. From the beginning, he played “a central role in informing participants and observers of the significance of the events and practices as they unfold, and in (selectively) enforcing tribal and Indian customs” (Mattern, 186). He informed spectators when to stand as a sign of respect, when it was acceptable for anyone to dance, and which categories were dancing when. He also told spectators that the schedule would be “tentative.” He explained this to mean “maybe we’ll do it, maybe we won’t.” To me, it seemed a simple, concise and straightforward way of explaining “Indian time” to someone like me, who doesn’t grasp that idea. The emcee isn’t the only tool allowing the pow-wow to function as an inclusive community event. The structure of the event itself contributes to the unity of the experience: namely, in the repetition of the circle as a symbol. The circle, which was a symbol in both structure and depiction at the Pow-wow of Love, “carries spiritual significance as a embodiment of all living creatures, and relations within this circle are characterized by unity, harmony, and inclusiveness” (Mattern 185). Not only was each drum surrounded by a circle of singers, but the entire spectator’s section and dance arena were also set up in a circle. Also, the symbol of the four directions mentioned repeatedly in the opening ceremonies had a strong connection to circles. On almost every dancer’s regalia was some sort of medicine wheel or circular symbol. Circles were a motif in the dances themselves as well. During the honor beats in every song, dancers with fans or staffs would wave them around in a circle above them, to honor the four directions the drum was speaking to. The drum itself could be thought of as a circle, both literally and in the rhythmic pattern it creates. The drum seems to move the singer’s voices up and down and to propel the dancers in the larger circle around the arena, and, particularly in the male traditional and certain styles of grass dancing, in smaller circles on an individual basis. It seemed to me that the minute the pow-wow really began was the moment the first drum struck up: the whole atmosphere changed completely as talkative spectators perked up and quieted down. There is something easy to understand in the rhythm of a drum, across tribal and cultural lines it makes sense, and in the context of the pow-wow it “symbolizes the heart of all living creatures and of indigenous people” (Mattern 187). Discussing the unison drumming of southern style singers, who were represented by a drum group at the Pow-wow, Mike Esquash said “you stand close to them you can kind of feel that heart…that beat on your chest and stuff, and the power. I like that power, that blast” (Scales, 16).  The vocal and physical movement the drum drives seems to echo this same effortless unity, through the repetition found in pow-wow songs and the unity across dance styles. Perhaps one of the most subtle forms of unity could be found in the dancer’s interpretations of their various respective styles. Despite the freedom to exercise individuality, a freedom of expression uncommon in many other forms of dance, there were certain unifying movements that drew lines between dancers and groups of dancers, giving the impression of a large, organized body as well as allowing observers to recognize individual variation. Unlike the Aztec dancers (whose very presence spoke to the Pow-wows inclusiveness,) most dance groups shared this delicate balance between individuality and uniformity. Through dance, drum, structure, and a very particular cultural interpretation, the Powwow of Love was an excellent example of what makes powwows such strong community events.
  • However, when the emcee called for intertribal participants, I remained firmly glued to my seat. Even as he encouraged natives and non-natives alike to leave the stands and hit the floor, I stayed rooted. I think the explanation can be best explored working from a statement made by Mattern, that “powwow practices contribute to social cohesion and the survival of Indians as Indians. Participants leave a powwow with a reinforced sense of what it means to be a tribal Indian and an American Indian” (191). This quote, when paired with the idea of survival as a triumph, a totally unfamiliar idea to a member of a dominant group, makes for an interesting comparison. On the rebirth of the cultural pride of indigenous peoples globally, George Manuel and Michael Posluns asked: “Does it matter how many battles others say you have lost if on the day of reckoning, you have survived?” (11) I think the reason that I could not truly experience a powwow as it was meant to be experienced had nothing to do with the organization or execution of the event itself, but with my status as a non-native. That survival is not my own, and therefore not mine to celebrate. The identity it reenforces is not my own, and while I can learn and enjoy and sketch and sway in my seat, the powwow is not mine “to be danced and felt” (Scales 11) However, these restrictions are much more personal than absolute. For example, the dance following the Grand Entry to honor Veterans included natives and non-natives, and veterans stepped forward to receive the honor as all the dancers stood around them in a circle, as once again the circle served to represent oneness and inclusiveness.
  • Despite certain barriers between cultures and tribes, the powwow is a forum in which inclusiveness and unity are strongly encouraged. Various elements of its composition, including cultural interpretation and basic structure, are forces which encourage and reinforce this unity. On a personal level, certain barriers may prove to much to be overstepped. For example, a tribe’s elder may be horrified at the liberal taking of pictures as disrespectful to the ceremonies taking place. Or a spectator may know that his or her place can only be that of an observer. Additionally, there are tensions between modern and traditional and between secular and spiritual that can be observed in powwows as a whole. However, despite these tensions and despite the reality of certain cultural and social barriers, the powwow provides a unique experience regardless of race, community or tribe.

The other night I had a dream that I was a jingle-dress dancer. I could feel the weight of my garment and I could feel the heartbeat from the drums around me. I twirled, hand on hip, as I had seen the jingle dress dancers do at the Powwow of Love. For a moment, I was there. This dream, oddly enough, seemed to reaffirm the strength of the Powwow as a cultural experience: one powerful enough to be not only fascinated by but immersed in. I can only imagine that the added layer of cultural meaning the event holds for native participants must make it much, much stronger. An already powerful event becomes a celebration of survival and identity: that “beat on your chest…that power, that blast” is one too strong for many cultural and tribal lines that hold firm elsewhere.

Published in: on February 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

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