On Going to the Pow Wow

IN ALL CULTURES, social dance figures. The pow wow has, as is the case with so many things indigenous, both its historic (which is to say “pre-contact”) and contemporary manifestation. Without doubt, the pow wow is today an expression of pan-aboriginalism, being a social festival which looks roughly the same across North America. The seasonal and ceremonial dances of long ago varied widely, from culture to culture, so that it is probably of little help to look back more than a couple decades to discern the roots of a modern pow wow.

Today I attended the thirty-second “Champion of Champions” pow wow at the Six Nations of the Grand River, in Ohsweken, an annual event whose first occurence was July 28, 1980. Among the larger pow wows of eastern Canada, the Champion of Champions is a competition pow wow. The many dancers who arrive annually to this event spend their Summers touring the United States and Canada, competing for cash prizes. There is some decent money to be made by the more successful contestants, and indeed the competitive pow wow is best seen as an economic rather than spiritual or even cultural undertaking.

Given the commonplace interpolation of spirituality into everything Native, one must underscore the preceding point. The pow wow is rich in etiquette and formality, but at bottom it is a social occasion, undertaken for the purposes of having fun and making some money. The Grand Entry also reminds us that the pow wow honours veterans of war, a function which I imagine to be of some antiquity. The pow wow first-timer — chief among them the many curious tourists — will be fearful of causing offense or otherwise mis-stepping, but there are really only a few things you need to know to pull the thing off. Here is a short list to guide you:

1) Pow wow attire is called ‘regalia': so try not to compliment a dancer’s costume. 2) Whenever possible, ask permission before taking a photograph — and don’t photograph when asked not to. 3) Don’t bring drugs and alcohol. 4) Don’t do anything that would identify you as an ass in any other context.

I have been to many dozens of pow wows, principally for two reasons, viz., to run across old acquaintances and to eat pow wow food. The former requires no glossing, but of pow wow food there is much to say. The most common are Indian Tacos, a seasoned ground beef served on fried Indian bread and garnished with tomatoes and lettuce and other conventional taco ingredients, and buffalo chips, which as the name suggests are deep-fried chips cut from the potato in such a way that they are concatenated, or attached in a long chain. (Pow wow food is not health food.) If you attend a Haudenosaunee pow-wow, which of course the Grand River pow wow is, you’ll see much ‘Iroquois’ food: scone (or fry bread, pronounced skawn), strawberry drink and corn soup — which is a soup made of water, kidney beans, salt pork, and hominy (aka white corn or lye corn).

Who makes the best fry bread, other than me? — that is a question to be settled as quickly as possible at a pow wow. The origins of fry bread have to do with early 20th Century government rations, provided by the Department of Indian Affairs to the Indian reservations. In the lean times, which were plentiful, most families had flour, salt, lard, baking powder, and water or milk. Mix the flour, salt, and baking powder, and add milk, then form the dough into a disk and fry: the result is an effective and pleasing cure for hunger. You might think, given the simplicity of the thing, that all fry bread would come out the same. In this assumption you would be mistaken. The variations are endless, and the reason I believe has to do with the kneading stage, every fry bread maker having his or her own individual manner of handling the dough.

Once you’ve dutifully stuffed your gob, there are the many craft vendors to visit. Moccasins, sweet grass, sage, carvings, rings, dream catchers, beaded bingo dabber holders and tasseled cigarette cases and T-shirts with clever parodies of commercial logos (e.g. Old Native, for Old Navy) and on and on. They’ve now managed to put the Peacemaker’s belt on every sort of object, the most recent entry I noted being sets of bed sheets. Like I said, it’s an economic undertaking. The vendors of the Grand River pow wow occupy a far larger piece of territory than do the dancers, which may or may not be indicative of priorities. Putting that aside, let’s consider these dancers.

Pow wows held not for competition but for mere fun are termed traditional pow wows. As a rule these traditional pow wows are held in smaller communities, where regardless of any preferences to the contrary traditional is probably the only way to go. A competitive pow wow requires money, which requires crowds, which small or remote reserves do not have. In a traditional pow wow most if not all the dances will be ‘intertribal,’ meaning that anyone who wishes to can dance. Even a competitive pow wow however will include intertribal or intertraditional songs, so that a tourist in his blue jeans and T-Shirt (Old Native or Old Navy) may enter the circle.

Whether at a a traditional or competitive pow wow, the dancers come in several categories, broken down by sex. There are traditional dancers, and fancy dress dancers, and jingle dancers, and smoke dancers, and grass dancers and hoop dancers. These names indicate types of regalia as well as types of dances, and in some cases — such as jingle dress dancers — they are sex-specific. A chicken or smoke dancer (these are dances for men) will mimic the movements of chicken or smoke in the wind. Judges consider regalia, foot-work, movements, and familiarity with the nuances of the accompanying songs in their selections of the best dancers. Differing types of dances require different songs, and singers will sometimes introduce variations to test the skill of the competitors. It’s all in good fun, but no small task under the merciless July sun.

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