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Characteristics of the Native American Pow-wow


The word comes to us from the Algonquin language, most likely from the Narragansett word powwáw, meaning sorcerer, or shaman. It is a gathering together of different tribes and clans for spiritual communion, or often, simply as a contest for Native American dancers. Every pow-wow is different, but there are a few important rituals that are almost always practiced during these tribal gatherings, so I'll describe a few that are shared in common.

The Drum Circle: Gathered around a large, traditional tribal drum, a group of men, led by an elder, pound out the drumbeat to which we dance. The drummers are men because most Native American tribes are patriarchal, with a few exceptions, most notably the Cherokee and the Navajo. In these nations, the women hold dominance in most tribal matters. They hold the land and property rights, as well as all the important decision-making positions. Perhaps this is why the Cherokee have always had a tradition of being the most peaceful of all the Native American tribes. However, at a pow-wow, many different tribes and clans come together, and the drum circle is nearly always made up of men. The drumbeat symbolizes the heartbeat of the Great Spirit that brought us forth on the Earth.

The Dance: Around a central point, marked by either a totem, a bonfire, or other symbolic focal point, the dancers circle in a slow procession to the beat of the sacred drum. There are many different dances, but usually, at least one foot makes contact with the earth in either a tapping step or a supportive step for every beat of the drum. Beyond that, nearly every individual has their own stylization, based on a common dance type. We enter a deep communion with the heartbeat of the drum, and some even enter a trance state. It is a deeply personal and meaningful connection to our spirituality.

The Welcoming Line: It is important to respect and honor your guests. Since a pow-wow can go on for days, and newcomers are always showing up, the welcoming line is periodically set up by the organizers of the event to show respect to their guests and visitors, be they participants or onlookers. A receiving line of all the hosts draws new arrivals into the inner circle of the event, welcoming them with a big hug and pat on the back. Touching each other is an important part of feeling communion when we gather from many different tribes, clans, or walks of life.

Native dress: At any pow-wow, you will see many of us dress in our traditional clothing, especially the dancers. Sometimes, we dress in full native regalia, according to our tribe, or our clan within the tribe. There are seven different clans within the Cherokee tribe. Mine is the Wolf Clan, called the A NI WA YAH. From feathered head-dress to beaded moccasins, and everything in between, we celebrate our customs wearing our traditional clothing. But many times, we just wear simpler outfits: jeans and a tee shirt, embroidered with a tribal motif. Sometimes, I wear just a headband and native jewelry, with a couple brightly colored feathers laced into my hair. Every tribe has different bead-work patterns to differentiate themselves, and they are always very colorful. Feathers from different bird species have different meanings too.

The Gifting: The Native American host is always a generous provider to his guests. At every gathering, a blanket is spread, and an array of gifts is presented. The hosts of the event first call up the elders of each clan to receive first choice from the gifts laid out. Then, one by one, other designated groups are called up to the gift line, until finally, the children are turned loose to claim the remaining treasures. The gifts can range from hand-made native crafts to boxes of pencils, or other everyday useful items, but everybody gets something.

Sacred Moments: Each event is blessed, but some dances and rituals are especially sacred to the elders. These events are announced, but in the noise and confusion, many outsiders do not hear the announcements, and usually a member of the organizing council will go around, politely asking observers not to take pictures, videos, or engage in other intrusive activities while a sacred ceremony transpires. It is simply a matter of respect. I forgot to mention this to my boyfriend once, when he began video-recording one of the ceremonies, and he and several others were asked to stop shooting their cameras during that particular dance. But that was my fault for not paying attention.

Native food: Modern Indian pow-wows are usually welcoming of all comers, native and non-native alike, so thousands can show up. The Native American tradition of feeding all their guests has, of necessity, had to be modified for the modern pow-wow. In other words, food ain't free! It is plentiful, however, and there is a large variety offered for sale in the food tent. You can usually find Indian chilies, Indian tacos, fry-bread, pepper relishes, and other common native staples, along with more traditional American food, but the custom of 'pigging-out' at a pow-wow is alive and well. Bring your appetite!

Invariably, you will find all sorts of Indian crafts for sale at numerous vendors' tents set up all around the perimeter of the event. Beads, jewelry, art, and native crafts of every variety can be found at a pow-wow. I play the Native American six-hole flute, so I always look for the flutes whenever I go. They are typically made of cedar, which has the softest and most resonant sound, but more beautifully figured hardwood instruments with a brighter sound can be found too, and I have a collection of both, which I've purchased from Native craftsmen from Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, to the Cherokee Reservations of North Carolina, where our tribal lands were originally located. Some Indian flautists amplify their flutes, and run the signal through an echo-processor, so the sound is reminiscent of the rich, atmospheric sound of a flute being played in a box-canyon. You can hear the effect on many recordings and CD's available by native flautists, like Coyote Old Man, and R. Carlos Nakai. I was trained to play by a Pueblo Indian in Santa Fe named Sky Redhawk, and I go back to visit him whenever I travel out west.

I hope some of you have read this through to the end, because we Native Americans love to share our culture with everyone, and we are a very proud people, even though many of us are now of mixed blood. The Cherokee women of the lower Appalachians commonly married Scottish men, who emigrated and settled in our mountains because it reminded them so much of the Scottish landscape they left behind. Many Scottish traditions are similar to native tradition, insofar as clan denominations, clan-markers: tartans for the Scots and bead-work for the Native Americans, for example. A strong oral tradition of story-telling is common to both nations also, as well as sharing a tradition for being fierce warriors. You can tell by my Scottish last name that I'm descended from one of those Scots-Cherokee pairings. I hope you all get to experience an Indian pow-wow someday. I've enjoyed them all my life! O-si-yo!

Copyright 2012 Bethany Frasier
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