July 24th, 2011 Last Updated on: July 18th, 2021
Pow wows, by definition, are Native American gatherings in which American Indians sing, dance, reconnect with old friends and celebrate their rich ancestral histories. Often accompanied by a conference or meeting, pow wows are one of the best ways to experience traditional Native American culture.
There are several different stories of how the gathering was started. Some believe that the pow wow originated with the War dance Societies of the Ponca and other Southern Plains Tribes.
Another belief is that when the Indian tribes were forced onto reservations the government also forced the Native Americans to have dances for the public to come and see. Before each dance, they were led through the town in a ceremony or parade, which is the beginning of the Grand Entry.
Native American Indian singers are very important figures in the gathering. Without them, there would be no dancing. The songs are of many varieties, from religious to war to social.
As various Indian tribes gathered together, they would share their songs, often changing the songs so singers of different tribes could join. With these changes came the use of “vocables” to replace the words of the old songs. Thus, some songs today are sung in “vocables” with no words, depending on the ceremony.
Yet they still hold special meaning to American Indians who know the song. Many songs are still sung in traditional Native American languages either newly composed or revivals of old songs. These songs serve as reminders to Native Americans of their old ways and rich heritage.
Dances have always been a very important part of traditional American Indian life. Most dances seen at pow wows today are social dances, which might have had different meanings in earlier days. Although dance styles and content have changed, their meaning and importance have not. The outfits worn by the dancers, like the styles of clothing today, evolve over time. It is not a stagnant culture, but a vibrant and changing way of life.
Pow wows are organized by a council that works for months before the event. At the pow wow, the emcee runs the ceremony events. The emcee works with the Arena Director to keep the conference or meeting running smoothly. These two individuals, along with the council, work hard to bring the people together for dance and fellowship in the circle.
The pow wow begins with the Grand Entry. This is when everybody enters the arena. This originally was a parade through the host pow wow town. Even today in some pow wows, these parades are still held. During the Grand Entry, everyone is asked to stand as the flags are brought into the arena. The flags carried generally include the U.S. Flag, Tribal Flags, the POW Flag, and Eagle Staffs of various tribes present. These are usually carried by veterans. American Indians hold the United States Flag in an honored position despite the horrible treatment received from this country. The flag has a dual meaning. First, it is a way to remember all of the Native Americans' ancestors that fought against this country. It is also the symbol of the United States which includes millions of Indians. The flag here also reminds people of those people who have fought for this country.
Following the veterans are other important guests of the pow wow including Tribal Chiefs, Princesses, Elders, and pow wow organizers. Next in line are the male dancers. The men are followed by the women dancers. Once everyone is in the arena, the song ends and a song is sung to honor the flags and the veterans. After a prayer, the dancing resumes, usually with a few round dances. After the round dances, intertribal dancing songs are performed and everyone at the ceremony dances to the beat of the drum.
Note: While this is the most commonly referenced definition for pow wow, the word can also mean “an American Indian medicine man,” according to Merriam Webster. A medicine man is, by definition, an American Indian healer and tribal spiritual leader who believed that physical nature might be brought under the control of man. Use of the term “pow wow” in contexts not relating to American Indians or their cultures is considered offensive.
Pow Wow Information
- What is a Pow Wow? — Definition
- Pow Wow Etiquette
- Pow Wow 101 – Frequently Asked Questions
- Pow Wow Singing
- Dance Styles
- Watch Pow Wows Live Online
- Craft Tutorials
- Listen to Pow Wow Music
- Watch Pow Wow Videos
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- Pow Wow Photography Guide
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