Powwow Pet Peeves (Brian Wilkes)
We’re approaching another powwow season. The language teacher in me wants to clear up a few things:
The American Indian word most inconsistently spelled all over North America is “powwow,” which has a lower-case p (unless it’s the first word of a sentence or part of a proper event title like Harvest Moon Powwow) and no hyphen or space. It is correctly an unbroken word, not Pow Wow or PowWow or Pow-Wow. It comes from the Algonquian Massachusett/ Natick/ Wampanoag pauwau and Narragansett powwaw and means ‘he dreams’ or ‘he uses divination’, ‘he interpets dreams’.
For you Cherokees, powwow has no connection at all to Cherokee tradition, anymore than do dreamcatchers and saying ‘aho’.
In the old pre-contact days, among the Algonquin peoples of the Northeast, there was often an annual gathering where holy men would listen to the dreams an visions of people who came to them. While the visionary was having his or her dream interpretted, everyone else was waiting in line. As with religious festivals and pilgrimage sites around the world, this was a captive audience for entertainment and trade. One of these meeting sites in northern New Jersey is still called Mahwah, or ‘meeting place,’ a Lenape word related to pauwau.
Fast forward to the late 19th Century. In the wake of the Wounded Knee Ghost Dance massacre, and the realization that federal agents couldn’t distinguish between  a gathering asking God to send his son back to earth to redeem the planet and  crazed savages working themselves into a battle frenzy, a law was passed forbidding Indians to gather, sing, and dance. But one exception is made: these things could be done if they were under white control, and done for the education and entertainment of white folks. The result was the “Wild West Show,” which used a circus setting to present a ‘safe’ version of Native culture and tradition.
In the 20th Century, The Wild West Show evolved into the Hollywood western. During World War 2, Indians served with distinction in all branches of the service, and millions of Americans had their first contact with live Indians. The modern powwow begins in the postwar era, picking up steam in the Seventies with the Red Power movement, and exploding after Kevin Costner danced with wolves.
Okay, now I may tick off a few people. Most of the so-called powwow traditions date only to the Fifties. Before the WW2, many of the dances were unknown. The Grand Entry is a tradition of circus, as is the big ‘powwow drum’.
Powwow was a way to preserve a few traditions in the only legal way then available, and to get in a few digs at the white folks who came to be entertained. As a result, powwow is the Indian version of a black-face minstrel show held in a flea market.
In the past ten years, Native groups around the country have tried to break the stereotype by replacing the loaded word ‘powwow’ with ‘traditional gathering’ or ‘festival.’ This is partly because of the federal arts and crafts law that requires any “Native American Powwow” to have members of federally recognized tribes. But if what comes to the gate are people looking for bargains on silver and turquoise jewelry, it’s a hard stereotype to break.
The best powwows take advantage of the captive audience to teach somehting genuine of our rich history and tradition, to transform a shopping and entertainment experience into a learning experience. The late George Whitewolf Branham of the Moncan Sioux was outstanding in this respect.
So as you cruise the powwows this coming season, ask yourself if you really learned anything, or if it was just the same old re-heated stereotypes. Then let us know the good and bad points; we’ll keep score!
I like the article written by Brian Wilkes, someone I respect. It is well written and could be likened to a history lesson.
And like him I have a number of pet peeves about powwows as well, I may catch a little heat for this in the way I will express my thoughts if they are taken to be a rebuttal or confrontation- but I have done so not to confront or argue any point.
My intent is to approach this from a different angle and perhaps add another perspective, maybe even a few bread crumbs to follow that help to explain.
Powwows regardless of how the word is spelled or spoken are social gatherings, there is inarguably a carnival atmosphere about them replete with the grand entries, and often enough now invocations that have no indigenous origins.
They are in a sense “holidays” for the nations much like the national ones this and other countries are given to.
They are our Xmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, and perhaps some might even say related to the regalia involved our Halloween or costume ball.
They are an event, an opportunity, to see old friends, make new ones, exchange news, and generally have a good time.
Where else does the opportunity exist for such a gathering of our people from various nations for the sole purpose of reveling in who we are?
Are powwows commercialized? They certainly are-part of the assimilation process, but I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater- which isn’t to say Brian is either.
What I would like to see is an attempt to slow this assimilation process, to drop the non indigenous flag waving and invocations, and stress traditions.
Dances peculiar to one nation are now routinely performed by others-some may have an issue with that, me being one of them on a certain level.
But it raises the question for me if any nation will promote it’s language to non indigenous people, which many seem to be doing, how much of an issue can be made when one nation dances the dance of another?
New dances may have evolved, just as new words have when you consider we had no words for many things we encountered over the decades and centuries- “hybridized” words can be found throughout the nations that attests to that.
A reality is that with each new generation that is born what they see, hear, and are born into as being acceptable will be perceived in that way by them-not only seen but perpetuated.
That in my opinion places an onus on the parents and the nations.
I attend powwows on occasion as circumstances permit, and I will continue to for the positive reasons I’ve stated above, the shared excitement, the preparation in readying to do so is the same as going to a state or local fair,a party, or give away- a time to have a little fun, but also a time to sing, dance, beat the drum, and be in a gathering of our people.
In the end the experience is defined by what each brings to it, what is in the heart of the dancer or the drummer, the smiles and participation of our children, and the foot tapping of our elders whose eyes speak to the memories they entertain as they watch or participate-it is a time for them to dream, and for us as well.
Easy enough to explain to the little ones what is or isn’t germane, but also an opportunity for them to be in the midst of the people and perhaps catch a fleeting glimpse of another reality that says we are a distinct people celebrating what makes us so.
All things indigenous have become something of fad for many in this country and the world, and like all fads that interest will lead to commercial ventures-something that is predictable.
We know the new agers have a severe case of the wannabes, we know they will steal anything they can get their hands on, give themselves an “Indian” name, and claim they have been tutored by medicine people, had visions, and are a pipe carrier.
Something would be leaders and spokespersons among us facilitate for financial gain.
Whether we as individuals or nations embrace such things will define the course taken-it is our responsibility, no one else’s-how the future is defined will in large part be the result of the decisions we make-good or bad, we will live with them while others remain observers or become profit takers.
That is the way it will be for our children and for us when we are elders ….when that time comes our eyes should be illuminated by and speak to memories of having remained who we are and were born to be.