Gathering the Tribes:
From Pilgrims to Powwows
by Kate Heyhoe
Around the globe and around the year, cultures devote special days to giving thanks and family gatherings. Even before the first Europeans landed on these shores, and long before the Pilgrims' arrival, Native Americans observed their own versions of what we might consider "Thanksgiving" by sharing food and ceremonies with immediate family and tribal members. Over time, these gatherings grew from close-knit observances to more formal events, attracting Native Americans from many tribes. Today, the largest of these gatherings, known as powwows, often take place over several days of sharing and giving thanks, complete with both joyous and solemn rituals.
I can't say this strongly enough: If you've never been to a powwow, go! Most are free and all peoples are welcome to join in. Powwows have their roots in sacred ceremony, and participants are asked to respect traditions during the blessing and other solemn observances—to stand, remove one's cap or hat, and listen to the speaker. As Maurice Lyons, Tribal Chairperson of Southern California's Morongo Indians says, "This is our church. Please treat it as you would your own house of worship." But what a church this is—the dancing, drumming, and chanting are full of festive, brilliant pageantry, from the Grand Entrance with its silver-haired elders and procession of dancers to the always spirit-lifing "Tiny Tots" competitions. Uniformed veterans and active-duty military members carry the flags of the nation, state, and Native American tribes.
According to Powwow-Power.com, "The word powwow in itself is from an Indian word that has been Anglicized. It is derived from the Algonquian term "pau-wau" or "pauau", which referred to a gathering of medicine men and/or spiritual leaders... In the 1800s the European explorers observing these religious gatherings and dances mispronounced the word as powwow. Non-Indians began to use the term to describe nearly any gathering of Native people they experienced and eventually, Indians themselves began using the term. As more Indians learned English, the more 'powwow' became the accepted standard for both Indian and non-Indian people."
Whether held on a single day or more commonly over a long weekend, powwows take place in every state of the union. Casinos, especially those in California, have been especially instrumental in the revival of the powwow circuit and contribute to the sometimes hefty prize purses awarded the dancers, whose costumes can be incredibly costly to make, both in materials and labor. You can search the Internet for powwows in your state, or check with your state tourism and Native American agencies.
Powwows and Powwow Etiquette
If you've never been to a powwow, you may be tempted to photograph the resplendent regalia of the men's eagle feathered bustles and the women's fancy shawls, videotape the impressive Grand Entry, or touch the fanciful bell-like cones of the jingle dance dresses. But these actions are considered poor manners. Many performers don't mind photographs, but you should always ask first and be respectful if they decline. Usually photographing events in the arena, such as the Grand Entry, are permitted but it's best to check with the emcee.
Powwows aren't just all ceremony. Market booths sell casual and museum-quality Native American jewelry, crafts, music and foods, including fry-bread tacos. Face-painters deftly apply eagles, symbols and other decorations to youngsters (which wash off with soap and water). Powwows are ideal events for a family excursion, and kids can become mesmerized by the brilliant colors and infective dancing. Thinking of gift giving? How about a feathered dream-catcher, turquoise joclas, hand-loomed blanket, or other unique item guaranteed not to be found in your local mall.
While dancing feeds the spirit and the soul, food stalls feed the belly, especially Native American fry bread. In the nineteenth century, Native Americans created these breads out of the rations they were given on reservations: flour, powdered milk, baking powder, and lard. When neither powdered nor fresh milk was available, they substituted water. Today, these deep-fried flatbreads are a source of Native American pride from coast to coast, symbolic of native strength in tough times. They're served in homes and at powwows, drizzled with honey as a sweet snack, or topped with beans, beef, tomatoes, and lettuce as an Indian Taco.
Native American Foods
Kate's Global Kitchen for November 2004:
11/05/04 Thanksgiving Headquarters
11/12/04 Go Fig-ure: The Beauty of Figs
11/19/04 Holiday Cooking with Kids
11/26/04 Gathering the Tribe: From Pilgrims to Powwows
Copyright © 2004, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created November 2004