A Powwow is Meeting, Making Friends and Spiritual Renewal
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
UPPER MARLBORO, Md., Nov. 20, 1998 According to Webster's dictionary, a powwow can mean everything from a social gathering, celebration, political strategy conclave to healing by incantation magic among the Pennsylvania Dutch or an audience with the Pope.
Mention a powwow to someone and most often they think of Indians dancing around in colorful, feathered regalia to the rhythm of thundering drumbeats.
In relation to American Indians, the word powwow resulted from a misunderstanding, and the word became part of a cultural heritage. Watching Algonquian medicine men dance, European colonists mistook the name of the dancer, pauwau, for the name of the ceremony. The word "powwow" came to be used for any tribal gathering, according to the book, "Through Indian Eyes: the Untold Story of Native American People," by Reader's Digest editors.
To American Indians, a powwow is a symbol of renewal of Indian identity, based on a religious ceremony practiced by the Pawnee tribe early in the 19th century. It was adopted by the Omaha and other tribes who transformed it into a warrior ceremony and added speechmaking, gift giving and a concluding feast, according to "Through Indian Eyes."
"By the 1880's some 30 plains tribes were holding powwows, bringing one-time foes together in peace to establish new friendships and celebrate shared traditions," the book reads.
The book states that for decades powwows essentially remained tribal gatherings. But as they grew in size and number through the 1960's and 1970's, dance styles and costumes evolved into truly pan-Indian forms, blending details and traditions drawn from numerous tribes. Today the dancers, singers and drummers follow an expanding powwow circuit, traveling from Michigan to Texas, Connecticut to California, south Florida to Puget Sound.
There are many powwows across the country dedicated to active duty military personnel and veterans. One of the newest is the two-year-old intertribal National Native American Veterans Powwow that was held here Nov. 7-8. The Native American Veterans Powwow Committee, which was founded in 1997 by Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Shawn Arnold (Navajo), his wife Shana (Mono), and a friend, Sam Windy Boy (Chippewa/Creek), sponsored it.
Dancers, drummers, singers and hundreds of supporters came from nearly 100 tribes from more than 30 states and Canada to honor veterans. Among them was powwow dancer, Richard A. "Lunging Bear" Nischan of the Powhatan tribe of Eastern Virginia, who said, "This is were you come and meet your friends."This is where you come to make friends with your enemies.
"This is a healing get together."This is where all nations get together and share their traditions and share words, wisdom and stories."It's a learning experience."
The stage is set for the festivities with the gourd dance, which "cleanses" the arena before the ritual of the powwow ceremony - just before the grand entry. The grand entry is when the color guard brings in the American and other flags and the powwow dancers dance into the arena to start the festivities.
"Years and years ago, the gourd dance was a strict society dance, a ceremonial-type of dance," said head gourd dancer, Hurschel Kaulaity, 68, of Kiowa and Cheyenne ancestry. "Back then, the southwest plains Indians only allowed a select few to dance.
"Now it's a social dance - anybody can take part," said Kaulaity, holding his eight-month-old grandson, Noah Clark, in his arms. "It's a wonderful thing that we can come together at a powwow not knowing one another. We traveled about 1,400 miles to get here from Geary, Okla."
Mercedes "Gentle Dove" Osborne of the Cherokee/ Blackfeet nations said the gourd dance is only danced by warriors. "It's a dance of bringing in the spirit of the powwow because our warriors have protected us," Osborne said. "They're bringing in all the positive things and it's always done before the grand entry to set the mood and mode of the powwow.
"It makes the people feel as one," she said. "You can feel it in the drums. It starts in your feet and goes all the way through you and makes you connected."
Men perform the gourd dance decked out in traditional regalia, usually a long-sleeve shirt and pants, a gourd sash or vest, and a rattle. Women, with colorful shawls wrapped around their shoulders, stand on the sidelines swaying to the drumbeats in traditional honor of warriors.
"We're not gourd dancers, we're nurturers," Osborne said as the heavy drumbeats and singer's voices resounded throughout the tobacco warehouse in which the powwow was held in Upper Marlboro.
The drums and singers are the voice, heart and soul of the powwow. The many songs of spirituality, joy and sadness are sung either in native languages or in "vocables." Vocables are sounds replacing words so singers of various tribes can sing together. The drumbeat is considered the collective heartbeat of Native American Indians and the drum is a sacred object. A drum, a large instrument, is played by an average of 10 people - seven or eight men and two or three ladies, sometimes, all men.
The drummers and singers performed a variety of vocable renditions during the festivities, including flag songs, victory songs, honor songs for World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and Desert Storm veterans.
The grand entry is a spectacular event. In a swirl of color, a color guard brings in the flags -- the American flag and others, such as state flag, eagle staff, Canadian or Mexican flag. Then all the powwow dancers dance into the arena. In some larger powwows, this involves thousands of dancers.
For several hours, intertribal dancers perform a myriad of dances - men's traditional, fancy dance, and grass dance and women's traditional dance, jingle dance and fancy dance. Then there's the "follow-the-leader-type" snake dance.
Visitors are asked to respect powwow etiquette including the sacredness of the drum and dance area. Since drums are sacred, drummers must be treated with respect. Photographing and tape recording is prohibited during some male traditional dances, honor ceremonies of dropped eagle feathers or any ceremony being held for feathers.
Participants are expected to return to everyday life with a difference - their spirit renewed. Until the next powwow.