Saturday, April 14, 2012
"Powwow was an Algonquin term, "pauwau" or "pauau", which referred to a gathering of medicine men and spiritual leaders. "Pauwauing" referred to a religious ceremony, usually one of curing. In the 1800's the European explorers observing these religious gatherings and dances mispronounced the word as powwow. (Jennings, The Invasion of America, p. 241.) Native American ceremonies, commonly known as powwows, have evolved from a formal ceremony of the past into a modern blend of dance, family reunion, and festival. Powwows are famous for their pageantry of colors and dance which have been adapted and changed since their beginnings into a bright, fast, and exciting event geared towards Native Americans and visitors alike.
Simply put, a powwow is a great big family gathering and party. There is singing, dancing, hugging, playing, catching up on old times, noise, laughter, and people everywhere! There is lots of dancing. It is a chaotic time filled with joy. It is almost a little overwhelming the first time one goes, but it is difficult not to get caught up in the movement of gathering and celebrating one another and one's culture. In short, it is a blast.
Now my understanding, which may be way off, is that when the United States government finally conquered (for no better term) the Indians of the West and shipped them off to reservations the goal was to make the Indians like them--primarily white. In order to do this the government sent the children off to boarding schools, dressed the Indians in white people's clothes, made them settle down and become farmers, and took away their religion. Again, that is simply put and it is much more complicated and diabolical than that what the government attempted to do. Since a lot of their religious ceremony centered around dance, the Indians were not allowed to dance--except in dance contests in which prize money was given at powwows.
Because of this there is a lot of dancing done at powwows. Used to be that females were not allowed to dance at powwows, but because of the dwindling population of the tribes they were later allowed. Thus there are "dance contests" at every powwow broken down into categories: male/female children, male/female teens, male/female adults, traditional, and fancy dance--plus inter-tribal dances where everyone joins in the fun. Out of each group winners are chosen and presented with a cash prize. Thus there is always a lot of dancing going on--colorful, joyful, whirling, spinning, enthusiastic dancing! It is a blast . . . and everyone joins in.
My impressions of the evening I spent at the powwow hosted by the Montana State University Billings Indian Club is one of fascination and wonderment. In the noise and swirling colors of the outfits there was a great sense of joy. Joy in the moment, joy in the gathering, joy in those whose presence graced one another. It was a magical event. I enjoyed the fellowship of those who were gathered. I enjoyed the exuberance of those who let loose and danced. Despite the fact that there were many different tribes gathered from Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and beyond it was still like one great big family reunion. It was a blessing to have the opportunity to be in the midst of such hospitality and love. In all honesty I still have not processed the whole experience in such a way that I can write a coherent blog about it . . . so, I think I will let the picture speak for themselves at this time until I go to the next one . . . which I hope will be the one on the Crow Reservation in July. Until then, enjoy!