Experience a Powwow
by Candyce H. Stapen
Attend a Native American powwow and you learn about the dancing, drumming, sharing and sense of community that is so important in Native American culture. Across the US, many powwows welcome non-tribal members.
The first powwow my daughter Alissa, then 12, and I attended was Pi-ume-sha Days, hosted every June by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs--the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute. We stayed at the tribesí nearby Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, Warm Springs, Oregon. As this was our first powwow, initially, we didn't quite understand what was happening or even how to experience the gathering.
The event sported the neighborly feel of a small town country fair. About a dozen vendors set-up booths spilling over with jewelry, tee shirts, and beads; others hawked nachos, Indian fry bread and other munchies. Families chatted in the bleachers that ringed the grassy field behind the Warm Springs' Community Center. Pre-schoolers played tag through the line of lawn chairs, and giggly pre-teen girls helped each other with last minute adjustments to their outfits. The powwow seemed part festival, part social gathering, and part dance contest.
Pi-ume-sha started with a gift. A grandfather, his faced furrowed like lines of sand, gave his 12-year-old grandson a present of eagle plumes. New-found friends explained to us that this transfer signaled a "joining," the ceremony at which a young man, perhaps after his first deer kill, formerly "joins" the traditions of his forefathers.
The crowd quieted as a trio of men burned sweet grass to sweep the "arena" clean; a Warm Springs woman chanted a prayer in Sahaptin, her native tongue. Then the grand parade began. A tribal elder, resplendently arrayed in traditional regalia, including a roach, or crown, of brown and gray porcupine needles that stiffly arched from his forehead down his back, led scores of dancers. Slowly and rhythmically they hopped to the drum beats, coiling towards the center, weaving a spiral of color.
The cadences linked the on-lookers to the performers, and the participants to each other. Along with the Confederated Tribes, members of the Shoshone-Bannock from Idaho; the Flatheads, Blackfeet, and Sioux from Montana; and the Navajo from Arizona and New Mexico became joyfully connected by the music.
As the drummers changed, so did the dances. A Wasco native, a Vietnam veteran, who sat behind us, befriended Alissa. He explained why one should never touch an Indian's eagle feathers unless invited to (these are sacred), and how to tell a traditional dance (look for the measured movements) from a fancy dance (note the exaggerated steps.)
The sheer spectacle and energy amazed us. We felt privileged to observe these dances that have been part of the tribal past for generations, as well as a bit perplexed as to how to respond. Applauding seemed too formal and out of place (no one clapped), but merely watching seemed like too little an acknowledgment.
Men with eagle bustles, breast plates made of quills, beaded vests, and cuffs promenaded, shaking their dance sticks--some decorated with eagle talons. Others twirled like dervishes, their arms covered with bright orange and blue rosettes of dyed goose feathers, their backs disappearing behind matching bustles.
Some women danced in beaded buckskin. Some sported rows of elk-teeth or conch shells on their dresses, and others wore floral shawls or beaded capes as they stepped in a staccato tiptoe. Alissa liked the young girls in their "jingle" dresses best. When these dancers swayed, the rows of silver cones (made from box lids) jangled like bells.
The night we watched children age eleven and younger competed. One pre-schooler whizzed by in a beaded vest and bustle ringed with golden fluff. A little girl in a white buckskin dress rocked next to her mother. One 7-year-old strutted like a rooster, cocking his head and flapping his arms. Their innocence and exuberance touched us.
As the sun set and spirits rose, more and more families joined in. Friends pulled friends from their seats into the drum beats. It didn't matter if you were wearing a ribbon shirt and head gear or jeans and a tee shirt. The idea was to rejoice and to feel proud.
The ring of friendship grew. Spurred by the festive atmosphere, Alissa suddenly knew what to do. Smiling, she entered the circle. Abandoning her 'tweenage self-consciousness, Alissa blended with the hundreds of celebrants as she danced in rhythm to the spirit of the powwow, realizing how special a gift she had received.