The Powwow

By Anna Hoefnagels

Origins of the Modern Powwow

There are multiple explanations of the origin of the modern-day powwow.  Most agree that it has roots in various Plains Nations and in the Oklahoma area. One account associates the powwow with the warrior societies that existed as late as the 19th century. Warrior societies were strictly for men, who would use music and dance to prepare themselves for battle by simulating moves such as sneaking up on an enemy warrior. They danced to the beat of the drum, while others in the community watched and encouraged them, building their enthusiasm for going to war. Upon their return from battle, the warriors re-enacted their war experiences through dancing, showing one another and their community how they had fought against the enemy and used various moves to avoid being injured. When the men performed their war dances, women and children encircled them to watch and support them.

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During the late 19th century these war dances became social dances, as skirmishes over hunting areas decreased between Indigenous groups. It is at this time that women and children also began to dance to the war dance songs; the women stood in place bending their knees to the beat of the drum on the edge of the dance area.  It was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the powwow started spreading across the country.  Today powwows are held in many First Nations’ communities in southern Canada.

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There are two main types of powwows. One is usually referred to as a “traditional powwow” (in some regions it is called a gathering). These events are usually more relaxed and social in nature. They may be part of a series of seasonal celebrations or part of an Elder’s Conference. At these events there is no competition for prize money, although a Blanket Dance may be held to help pay travel expenses for drum groups. This would be a regular intertribal dance (anyone can join) and four people would dance around the circle holding a blanket into which people throw donations.  The more common powwow today is the “competition” powwow. Here dancers and drummers compete in various categories for prize money.  Both the traditional and the competition powwow have social and ceremonial aspects.

The modern powwow emerged at various times in different parts of the country. In the Maritimes, for example, the first official powwows were not advertised until the 1980s, and even today within Canada there are some regions where First Nations have not adopted this form of expression and celebration.

As Indigenous nations adopted the powwow and its music and dance, they often adapted their own traditions and celebrations to the conventions of the powwow.  A good example is the question of gender roles.  Although tradition has it that women should not participate in powwow drumming and serve merely a supportive singing role behind the men, this has been changing since the mid-1930s in some regions. All-female drum groups, as well as mixed groups of men and women, are becoming more accepted.

Modern Powwows

As powwow practices spread beyond the Plains, people added new dances, songs, teachings and interpretations to accommodate their own beliefs and traditions.  Plains-style music and dance heavily influences modern powwows, and in Canada most people perform in the “Northern” style.

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With Northern style the music is usually provided by male singers/drummers sitting around a large bass or powwow drum. Women may stand behind as back-up singers. In the Northern style, singers use their uppermost vocal range. “Southern” style, which originated in the Oklahoma/Kansas region, features a lower vocal register. There are also differences in songs, dance styles, regalia, and origin stories between the Northern and Southern versions of powwows (Wright-McLeod 2005: 307).

At powwows intertribal and specialized dances occur for ceremonial or competitive purposes. In most dances, participants move individually, reacting to the beat of the drum and the songs of the singers, while moving around the dance area in a clockwise direction. For intertribal dances, in which all people, Indigenous and non-Native, may participate, the dancers step forward in a toe-heel step, tapping one toe on the ground, then stepping on the ground with the heel of the same foot. While some dancers only shuffle their feet in time to the drumbeat, others are more acrobatic or athletic in their dancing, more actively moving their feet and legs while swaying their upper bodies, arms, hips and head. This diversity in dance styles appears as well in some of the more “ceremonial” dances at the powwow, including the Grand Entry and Honour songs.

Some specialized dancing takes place at powwows, often according to the particular category of dancers. These dance categories were introduced at different times and have a specific narrative attached to them. The dancers wear highly decorated regalia rich with symbolism.

Men’s Traditional Dance

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The most historic dance that is seen at powwows is the Men’s Traditional Dance, with direct links to the historic War Dancing that served as a precursor to powwows. These dancers often wear beaded moccasins on their feet, with matching beaded leggings on their lower legs that complement the rest of their outfit, and bells to emphasize the sounds of their dance movements. On their bodies they often wear leather materials, sometimes including a fringed apron that covers their midsection, and they may wear a ribbon shirt beneath their breastplates. Other common features are beaded capes and a feather bustle, headdresses with eagle feathers, leather armbands on the forearms, decorated sashes

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and ribbons which match the beadwork, and an eagle whistle worn around the neck. They may wear face paint, and carry a fan or a coup stick in their hand. The various parts of their outfits usually symbolize some aspect of the dance’s origins in War Dancing. Their dancing often simulates the movements associated with battle or with hunting, and they may whoop, call out or sound their eagle whistles if they are enjoying themselves.

Men’s Traditional dancers may perform different dances at powwows, and their movements are usually quite stoic and introspective; at times it is evident that the dancers are very moved emotionally and spiritually while dancing. The regalia and many of the dance moves used by Men’s Traditional dancers are very individual, reflecting the home culture of the dancer and his personal aesthetic ideals.

Women’s Traditional Dance

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Complementing the Men’s Traditional dancers at powwows are the Women’s Traditional dancers. According to traditional teachings about the powwow, women did not historically dance when the men performed War Dances, but would encircle the area where the men were dancing and bend their knees in time to the drum beat. However, by the end of the 19th century some women began to dance with the men, moving alongside them around the dance area. This change in the role of women  occurred at the same time that War Dancing became a social activity, and children also joined in dancing. Women’s Traditional dancing is now considered the most revered and graceful of women’s dancing at contemporary powwows. The dancers wear regalia that often include a leather dress with a breastplate, and a beaded cape with long fringes that swing with the dancers’ movements. They often drape a fringed shawl over their left arm and may carry symbolic items, such as a feather fan or a small pouch, in the other hand. On their heads they may wear a beaded tiara that may be complemented with decorative barrettes worn in the hair.

The dance steps of the Women’s Traditional dancers are very solemn. They tend to keep one foot in contact with the ground to show their connection with Mother Earth; often their feet appear to be massaging the earth below them. If the women choose not to dance in place, bending at the knees to the beat of the drum, they will take small steps, slowly circling clockwise around the dance area. The women typically dance to two different styles of music, one requiring a forward-facing step to an accompanying song with an even drum beat, and the other requiring a side-step. For the dances that use side steps the women face the centre of the dance area, stepping to their left in time with the long-short pattern of the drum. The central stylistic goal of Women’s Traditional dancers is to have their fringes sway in a circular motion to reflect the dancers’ gracefulness and connection with Mother Earth.

Men’s Fancy Dance

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The Men’s Fancy Dance, also called the Fancy Feather Dance, is one of the most spectacular dances at modern powwows.  A modification of a War Dance, the Fancy Dance became progressively quicker and more elaborate, both in terms of the dance steps and regalia. A very showy dance, the Men’s Fancy Dance accelerated when it appeared for non-Native audiences in Wild West shows and similar venues. Dancers demonstrate their agility and athleticism through quick dancing characterized by fancy footwork, swinging their arms and swaying their upper bodies in time to the fast-paced beat of the drum. There are no fixed dance steps for Fancy dancers. To draw attention to themselves, Fancy dancers often incorporate spins and twirls in their dance steps, and some will even include cartwheels and other acrobatic gestures.

The regalia of Fancy dancers is very bright and colourful, with one of the most distinctive features being the two large feathered bustles with fringes at the ends worn on their backs. The dancers also wear colour-coordinated armbands, leggings, belt, smaller bustles on their upper arms, and a decorated headband and roach with feathers atop their heads. Additional accessories may include bells attached to their legs just below their knees, beaded chokers, a beaded apron, and decorated coup sticks or spinners in each hand.

Women’s Fancy Dance

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Complementing the Men’s Fancy Dance is the Women’s Fancy Dance, also known as the Fancy Shawl Dance or the Butterfly Dance. Similar to the delayed participation of the Women’s Traditional dancers, the Women’s Fancy Dance emerged on the powwow circuit in the 1940s and 1950s, when women first joined in the quicker dancing of the Men’s Fancy Dances. Prior to this time, women were only allowed to dance the more solemn dances of the Women’s Traditional style. However, in watching their male counterparts participate in a more athletic and “exciting” dance, women began to insist upon dancing a more athletic style. Adapting the agile movements of male Fancy dancers, women began to kick their feet up higher and incorporate quicker dance steps. At contemporary powwows Women’s Fancy dancers move quickly, but not as fast-paced as the Men’s Fancy. Their dancing is comparatively “modest” and not as acrobatic as their male counterparts, as they do not incorporate moves such as cartwheels and splits, and they do not swing their arms or carry decorated objects in their hands.

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Women’s Fancy dancers wear satiny, often brightly-coloured dresses with a matching beaded bustle, beaded leggings, beaded moccasins, and a shawl that they wear over their shoulders, holding one end in each hand. Their shawls and dresses have colourful fringes that sway to the movements of the dancers, and upon their heads the dancers usually wear a feather, held in place by a beaded barrette.  Women’s Fancy dancers usually keep their arms out at their side, emulating the image of a butterfly as it flies. The quick-paced nature of this dance and its relative newness on the powwow circuit attest to the fact that in many ways, Native women have and continue to challenge accepted gender conventions at powwows, adapting teachings and practices to suit their interests and needs.

Men’s Grass Dance

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There are different origin stories of the Men’s Grass Dance. According to some sources, when a group relocated to a new resting place, the men were expected to flatten the grass in preparation for setting up camp; the movements of these “grass flatteners” came to be associated with the Grass Dance. Another explanation is that the male dancers tied long strands of grass around their waist before they danced. Some people believe that these fringes were representative of the scalps of the enemies they had defeated.  For others the fringe on the dancers’ outfits flow and sway like the long grasses of the prairies. It is also said that the Grass Dance and the associated movements remind people of the need for balance in life, as the dancers mirror the movements made on one side of their bodies with the other.

Today the male Grass Dancers wear colourful outfits adorned with long strands of yarn or ribbon that sway to the movements of their dancing. They may wear matching moccasins, leggings, wristbands and a headdress with two feathers attached that spin and rock with the dancers’ movements. Some dancers’ moves reflect the “grass-flattening” origin narrative, dancing on one leg while their other leg ‘pats’ the ground around him.

Women’s Jingle Dress Dance

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The Women’s Jingle Dress Dance, a special dance at powwows due to its associations with healing, can be traced to a specific First Nation and, according to some Native people, to a named individual. Although there are different narratives about its origins, most agree that this dance originated amongst the Ojibwe (Anishinaabeg) in the Lake of the Woods area (the northern Great Lakes regions of Northern Ontario, Southern Manitoba, and Minnesota), specifically the Whitefish Bay First Nation in Northwestern Ontario. A common narrative of the origins of the Jingle Dress is that the dance was received in the dream of the father of a young, sick woman named Maggie White. In this dream he was shown a dress and its corresponding dance. After he made the dress he had his daughter put it on and dance as he had seen in his dream. Once she began to dance she was cured of her sickness, and sought to pass on the healing powers of the dress and its dance by teaching and sharing with others. First introduced in Anishinaabeg communities in the 1920s, this dance spread beyond these nations in the 1960s and 1970s, and flourishes as a Healing Dance in ceremonies at contemporary powwows throughout North America.

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The Jingle Dress is a unique dance category at powwows, due to its associations with healing and because of the special sounds produced by the jingles on the dancer’s dress. Each adult dress has at least 365 jingles or cones attached to it in a stylish pattern. The jingles or cones are made from the lids of snuff cans and attached individually to the dress. When the dancer dances, the jingles sway to her movements, tinkling against one another. The dancers usually carry a pouch in one hand, often containing gifts of tobacco that they had been asked to carry, and an eagle feather fan in the other, that they raise in response to musicians’ honour beats (accents in the drumming). On their feet are beaded leggings and moccasins that match the beaded belt around their waists. All parts of the outfits are colour-coordinated and the women often wear feathers in their braided hair. The dancers’ movements tend to be solemn and their upper bodies remain upright, as the dancing concentrates on their fancy footwork. There are two basic forms of this dance, one with forward-moving steps, and the other with side-steps considered to have even greater healing power.

The Jingle Dress Dance is an important dance at modern powwows. It has distinct origins and purposes, and illustrates the vitality of Indigenous dance and the cross-Nation sharing that has always taken place among First Peoples’ groups.  It is an example of a tradition that has origins in a specific Nation, the Anishinaabeg, that has now become ubiquitous at powwows through the continent, used by women of all Nations. This serves as an ideal example of the adaptation and renewal of Indigenous cultural practices and illustrates the vitality of their cultures.

Other Social and Exhibition Dances at Powwows

While the men’s and women’s Traditional, Fancy, Grass and Jingle Dress dances may be used as categories for dance competitions, at traditional powwows these dancers participate for pleasure alone. Dancers can participate at all powwows and not enter dance competitions, and powwows may include exhibition dancing in which each dance category and style is showcased. Exhibition dancing can include Hoop dancing and Tiny Tots.

A Hoop dancer performs alone on the dance area, moving to the beat of the drum while making various shapes and forms with the many hoops he or she carries. Often these shapes take the form of birds or animals, and this dance showcases the artistic talents of the individual performer.

Another exhibition that is highly favoured at powwows is the Tiny Tots category, in which children, usually under the age of five, are invited to dance, often outfitted in their miniature dance regalia. Notwithstanding the “cuteness” of the dancers, some of whom have just learned to walk, the Tiny Tots’ dances are very important at powwows as they celebrate the continuity of tradition and culture into future generations.

Local and Regional Variation

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The powwow celebration is clearly a dynamic and changing aspect of Indigenous culture, as it continues to evolve and adapt in response to internal and external influences and pressures. Although similar dances are performed at Canadian powwows, regional variation in the music, dances and regalia is evident, reflecting the importance of local customs, practices, teachings and meanings. For example, in Ontario the proximity of the Haudenosaunee means that many community powwows incorporate Smoke Dances, both as dance exhibitions and contests. The Prairie Chicken Dance, which originated with the Blood Nation in Southern Alberta, is now performed at many powwows outside of Alberta, but appears most frequently in that province. At powwows in Mi’kmaq territories, their unique dance of the ko’jua usually occurs.

The performance of local music and dances at powwows illustrates the importance of this celebration to the formation and renewal of people’s identity as members of a local community and of the larger Indigenous Canadian community. In the Native Dance database you can find many more photos and film clips concerning powwows in the collections of Gorsebrook, Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN), and Pinegrove.

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through Canadian Culture Online
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