I got out of my car in the cracked parking lot of the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi; the September sun and the salty breeze lent this South Texas town the unfortunate air of a forgotten seaside theme park. The coliseum itself had certainly seen better days. Lackluster concrete buttresses and dim red brick walls in the shape of an airplane hangar seemed barely able to support the dilapidated World War II-era dance hall. It took a second glance at my directions to confirm that I was really at the Fifth Annual Intertribal Powwow, a traditional Native American gathering where members of over 50 tribes celebrate and reenact the dance and song that has been part of their custom for hundreds of years.
I experienced my first powwow three years ago while working with a crew of Native American tree planters one spring in northern Ontario. At that point I was eager to go to one of these gatherings, having discovered a few years earlier that my great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. In fact, this had been a revelation to the entire family when, a few months before she died, she told her children about this long-kept family secret. In her day, being part-Native American wasn’t generally considered a source of pride.
I, on the other hand, considered it an honor, and I knew the powwow would be a great way to learn more about my Indian heritage. The gathering took place north of Lake Superior, just outside Armstrong, Ontario, a town at the end of the highway with a population of 200, not including the adjacent Indian reservation where about 150 Ojibway natives lived. To get there we took an old logging road to a huge field surrounded by birch and poplar trees. The Ojibway had set up a round wooden corral for the drums so the dancers could circle around them. Everyone camped out, and all weekend there was the constant smell of poplar bark burning and tin metal coffee being brewed. In the mornings a woman would wake with the first cold light and sing chants that seemed to linger with the fog through my tent flap. Each day, we all gathered for a breakfast of watery coffee and Indian fry bread, and for dinner we ate moose and beaver. Around ten o’clock each morning, the drums started and the dancing began, going all day and into the night. At the end of the weekend, when the dancers were packing away their eagle feathers and I was saying good-bye to my new-found friends, I felt a cathartic sense of belonging. It was as if I’d uncovered a part of my past and clarified the person I had become.
I wasn’t sure what to expect under the tropical Corpus Christi sun, but I knew I wouldn’t be eating any moose or beaver down here — more like chili dogs and nachos — and the only camping to be found would be at the Holiday Inn. However, if at first the Corpus gathering did not seem like it would offer what I had come to expect from past powwows, once I heard the deep and rhythmic bass drums sounding from the weathered building, I began to understand that even if the setting was different, the drums, the shrill Indian singers, and the dancers dressed in wild colors and traditional headdress were still the same. The American Indian spirit of celebration and community was alive and well.
The Story of the Powwow
The word powwow comes from a Narragansett Algonquin term pauau which was originally named for a medicine man-healing ceremony, andeventually used to describe celebratory gatherings for visiting tribes, or special events. Today, the powwow, or wacipi, retains much of the same meaning as it did hundreds of years ago, although the get-togethers have changed slightly, just as economics has changed much of Native American culture in the United States — namely through the gambling craze sweeping the reservations. These days many powwows are on a traveling circuit where dancers and singers compete for money; some individuals actually make a viable yearly income as powwow dancers. Even so, there is much more to these gatherings than the “competition dancing.” Powwows are events where Native Americans or anyone interested in native culture can dance, sing, listen to the drum, and talk to old friends in order to preserve the American Indian heritage. In essence, powwows serve as catalysts for the enduring Native American oral tradition, the indigenous equivalent of a history book.
Stories are true to our common experience; they are statements which concern the human condition. In the oral tradition stories are told not merely to entertain or instruct; they are told to be believed. Stories are realities lived and believed. They are true.—N. Scott Momaday, The Man Made of Words
Charles Pratt, an Osage Indian descendant from Oklahoma, is an elder in the Native American community as well as an active member of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio. He is a large man who, like many Native Americans, takes pride in his hefty girth. He walks with a cane and flourishes a white cowboy hat. An obvious statesman among his peers, he is well-spoken and very direct. “Powwows serve as a venue for the oral history,” explains Pratt. “You can come to the powwow and get the program and sit in the stands but the programs don’t ever touch on what the elders’ stories are about. Powwows are here to offer stories of our past.”
The stories of the oral tradition come in many forms, including the retelling of family experiences and stories passed by word-of-mouth from the older generation to the younger generation. And while that still happens at powwows, many of the stories we, as onlookers, can access are inherently attached to the dances and the dress we see and the songs and drums we hear. These aspects of Native culture have been around as long as there have been indigenous people on the continent.
Originally the stories swapped