The Modern Powwow and Dances
A Powwow, Wacipi in the Dakota Language, was originally a spring event to celebrate the seasonal renewal of new life. People would congregate to sing, dance, renew old friendships and form new ones. Powwows had religious significance as opportunities to hold a naming, now usually conducted in the privacy of a family gathering, and honoring ceremonies. In the Dakota/Lakota tradition, the celebration was also a prayer to Wakantanka ( the Great Spirit, Grandfather or Great Mystery) . The term "powwow" is traced to the Algonquin language.
Powwows are still very much a part of the lives of many Native Americans around the state and country and are held every weekend, often at several locations during peak periods, from June until September. Many families "go on the circuit', camp out and enjoy the traditional activities. Competitive singing and dancing, relatively recent changes, are often featured.
The circle, an important symbol to Native American people, is used extensively in powwows. The dancers are in the center, the drums and the audience circle around them and the concessions surround the gathering. The powwow brings the circle of people closer to family, friends and the comfort and vitality of their culture.
The Grand Entry
The Grand Entry is the parade of dancers which opens each session of powwow dancing. The Eagle Staff is carried into the circle, followed by the American, Canadian, state and tribal flags. Title holders from tribal pageants and invited dignitaries are next. The men follow, traditional dancers first, grass dancers, fancy shawl dancers and jingle dress dancers. Junior boys, then junior girls follow in the same order. Last come the little boys and the little girls.
The dancers perform clockwise or sun-wise around the arbor. Their outfits (the term "costume" is seen by some as derogatory) and their steps let the audience and other participants know who they are and what they can do.
After the grand entry there is a flag song, then an invocation blessing the gathering. The Eagle Staff, positioned above the American flag to signify the first nation, is tied to the pole in the center or brought to the announcer's stand. The dancing then begins.
Types of Songs
Songs are created and performed for different events such as grand entries, dance categories and honoring ceremonies. While they differ in tempo, words and emotions, all powwow songs follow a similar structure.
There are songs for all occasions: honor songs, veteran songs and war party songs. Many pre-reservation songs have been put aside in favor of a flood of new ones. Song groups sing only their own songs while others borrow songs and perform their own as well. The songs are not written, but tape recorded, and then they are learned by both singers and dancers. Singers are not judged by the sweetness of their voices. In the northern plains the higher parts are sung falsetto and the melody gains energy and rhythm as the voice descends. The sound is produced at the back of an open mouth and throat . The volume and quality of voice depend largely on well-developed abdominal muscles.
Women sing an octave higher and sometimes join the men. Women may "trill" at special places in the song to indicate deep emotion such as joy or appreciation of the song.
Some drums are handed down in the family, while others are donated to a group. Older drums are made of deer, elk, horse or buffalo hides, but contemporary bass drums can be purchased, renovated and even blessed.
The drum is more than a musical instrument to those who own and play it. It has a life of its own. Some drum groups have ceremonies to have their drums blessed and named. The drum is regarded as having its own powerful spirit. Gifts are made to it and some have their own sacred medicine pipes. In some traditions the drum symbolizes the heartbeat; in others, the powerful medicine of thunder. The term "drum" also refers to the drum group itself.
Men's Traditional Dance
The men's traditional dance began when war parties would return to the village and "dance out" the story of a battle and when hunters would dance their story of tracking prey.
The outfit is subdued in color. Often decorated with bead and quill work, the circular bustle of eagle feather spikes represents cycles and unity. The spikes point upward, representing a channel between the Great Spirit and all things on the earth. The dancers are often veterans and carry items which symbolize their status as warriors--shields, weapons, honor staffs and medicine wheels. Movements imitate the life journey of birds and animals.
Men's Grass Dance
The popular grass or Omaha dance originated with the Omaha Tribe. Outfits feature colorful fringes which replace the grasses originally tucked into belts. Many dancers wear the hair roach, the crow-belt and the eagle bone whistle, originally emblems of the Omaha society.
Dancers movements symbolize the swaying grass of the prairie in the wind and they keep their heads moving either up and down with the beat of the drum, nodding quickly several times to each beat, or moving from side to side. This keeps the roach crest feathers spinning, a sign of a good dancer.
Men's Fancy Dance
The fancy dance is relatively new. The use of brilliantly colored feather bustles is thought to have started in Oklahoma in the early 1900's when promoters asked dancers to beautify their outfits. Contests with cash prizes began and outfits became more colorful.
The fancy dance is performed mostly by boys and young men. Based on the standard "double step" of the traditional and grass dances, it deviates with fancy footwork, increased speed, acrobatic steps and motions and varied body movements. It is freestyle. Dancers must follow the changing beat of the drum and stop when the music does with both feet on the ground.
Women's Fancy Dance
The women's fancy shawl dance outfit consists of a decorative knee-length cloth dress, beaded moccasins with matching leggings, fancy shawl and jewelry. The style, similar to the men's, is moving toward more movement, especially spinning. Footwork is the chief element.
Jingle Dress Dance
The jingle dress dance came from Mille Lacs, Minnesota, according to one account. In a holy man's dream, four women appeared wearing jingle dresses. They showed him how to make them, what types of songs went with them and how the dance was performed. The jingle dress spread throughout Chippewa/Ojibway territories, to the Dakota and Lakota in the 1920's and west to Montana. Women from many tribes now make and wear these dresses, which are covered with hundreds of metal cones or jingles.
Everyone, including tourists, is welcome to an intertribal dance. No regalia is needed; it is not so much a particular kind of dance as it is a chance for everyone to dance.
A Dropped Eagle Feather
To Dakota and most Native Americans, the eagle feather is sacred. When one falls from a dancer's outfit, the powwow stops and a ceremony is performed to restore the feather's lost power for good. Four traditional dancers, usually veterans, dance around the feather from four directions and usually attack four times to retrieve it. While traditions differ among tribes, four is a sacred number for all tribes.
Honor songs are requested to honor a person such as a returning son or a deceased relative or people or for almost any occasion. Some people have their own honor songs while others use "generic" ones. A drum from the honored person's home or a favorite may be requested.
Veterans are well-honored in the tribes of this state. They are flag-bearers and retrieve dropped eagle feathers. This respect for veterans is an integral part of Native American culture from the time when the welfare of the village depended on the quantity and quality of the fighting men. To be a warrior was a man's purpose in life. Veterans were honored because they were willing to give their lives so people could live. Today's veterans are accorded the same honor and respect. In some tribes bravery is honored as one of the four virtues: generosity, wisdom, fortitude and bravery.