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 between tribes — those which are now the stuff of myth and legend — were used to explain why the earth was the way it was. There were creation stories, and stories about the sun and the moon. Hunters passed down tales of the buffalo, the wolf, and the deer. Warriors told of battles, victory, and death. Still, at the root of every Indian tribe and history is the fecund Mother Earth, the sacred hoop, and the circle of life where everything, like the powwow circle of dancers, cycles back into rebirth. Powwows are celebrations of life.
The foremost story being told at a powwow is that of the drum. Without the drum there can be no powwow. It is the spiritual core of the gathering. The story of the drum tells of the heartbeat of the Indian Mother Earth and how that beat draws everyone at the powwow into contact with the Great Spirit — a very old and very vital part of the Native American way. Not coincidentally, there is always a Center Drum present in the middle of the dance circle, a distinction considered to be very honorable and one that is given out to drummers who have shown their talent and commitment in many previous contests. Usually, there will be a half dozen or so drummers around one drum, each with a single drumstick, following the lead of the Head Singer. Their beats are synchronized and the result is a powerful, low and persistent rhythm overlaid with the chants and cries of the singers.
The songs are also part of the intricate web of stories emanating from the heartbeat of the Great Spirit. N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer prize-winning novelist and Kiowa native, writes, “the singers chant in the spirits’ strange and urgent language.” This is perhaps why the words sung at powwows are unintelligible — even to the tribes present — and consist of a series of cries and chants that work more to heighten the rhythm of the drum than to convey a literal message. At the same time, the singers’ chants establish a human presence in the world as if to tell Mother Nature that we are invested here and we belong here. Even so, it is widely believed that the songs sung at today’s powwows were, at one point, sung with words. What they spoke of, however, is up to our imaginations, although we can be sure they were religious songs celebrating a special moment, or mourning a poignant loss.
“In the Native American oral tradition,” writes Momaday, “expression, rather than communication, is often first in importance.” In this respect, the dress and the dancing that take place at a powwow are stories at their expressive best. In Texas, with numerous styles descending from different tribes, dancers show up for ceremonial and contest powwows dressed in full regalia relating to the type of dance they’re performing. Everything about the dancer, from the distinctive step to the clothes they wear to the rattles and staffs they carry, tells either a personal or tribal history. So much so that powwow regulars can recognize a dancer’s tribe based on what they wear. At powwows and in native culture, dancers communicate stories without speaking a word.
The first dance you’ll see at a powwow is usually the Gourd Dance, a sort of welcome dance and warm-up in which dancers carry a rattle and wear a simple sash around their waists. Then there is a Traditional Dance that is a basic one-two touch-step number with one foot going in front of the other to the beatof the drum; these were traditionally performed after a successful battle. The costumes for this dance include bone breast plates and one or two eagle feathers, called “scalp feathers,” hanging from the side of the head; the dancers usually carry an eagle feather fan and a beaded dance staff to ward off enemies. Another is the Grass Dance, an expression of the gentle, swaying movement of the grass on the midwestern plains. The Grass Dance costumes traditionally have leather or yarn tassels covering the entire outfit. Then there’s the Fancy Dance which requires much more head movement and elaborate turning by the performers. These dancers’ brightly colored dress and full feather bustles were introduced into powwow lore by Buffalo Bill and other Wild West shows in the nineteenth century and were subsequently adopted by Native Americans around the country. It is the only major non-Indian theme in present-day powwows, but still a distinct part of their oral history.
The women dress and dance differently from the men, participating in ceremonies such as the traditional Buckskin Dance, the Northern Fancy Shawl, and the Jingle Dress Dance. The Jingle Dress Dance features a dress with tin cones sewn in rows that make a jingle sound as the dancers bounce up and down to the drum. These days, the tin cones are made with rolled-up Copenhagen cans, but in the past, before the era of canned snuff, jingles were made with deer hooves and other animal bones. Legend has it that each jingle — there are supposedly 365 jingles on each dress — tells a story for every day of the year. Each jingle is significant to the individual and relates such significant events as the day a child was born or the day a woman was married.
These are only a few of the numerous dances taking place across North America. Many aspects of the powwow dances, including the drumbeat, can be divided into northern and southern styles. The southern style of dancing is traditionally slower, whereas the northern style has a faster, more staccato beat. Additionally, different tribes have different customs and some powwows are intertribal and some are not. These fine shades and differences are more important to the competitors than they are to the first-time powwower, who, for the most part, shows up to get an idea of what is happening in contemporary Native America and to glean some sense of the first-hand knowledge the powwow stories tell. After all, Native American history is indispensably linked to Texas history and if we can understand that past we might better understand our present.
The Texas Powwow
How many Indians does it take to change a light bulb?”Tim Tall Chief, Master of Ceremonies, jokes over the loudspeakers. “We’re not sure. When we get electricity we’ll let ya know.”
I’m sitting next to Tim at one end of Memorial Coliseum where he’s perched atop the auditorium’s stage with his wife, Paulette Tall Chief, who tabulates contestants’ numbers and keeps score for the judges. Together they’ve emceed or attended an estimated two powwows a month for the last ten years all over the country. Tim is an Osage from Oklahoma and works at the University of Oklahoma Health Science Center, and Paulette is part-Comanche, part-Delaware and was voted Native American Woman of the Year in 1996 by the Oklahoma Federation of Indian Women. When I ask them what they think about the Native American powwow in Texas — 70,000 or less than one percent of the American Indian population in the United States lives in the Lone Star State — they are eager to praise the amount of interest the events attract in the state.
“I don’t see much difference in the Texas powwow than those in other states,” Paulette tells me. “The only difference is the people who come. In Texas there seems to be so many more non-Native Americans at the ceremonies. But I’ve been in education for many years and I’ve always wanted to teach and share our culture with those who are interested. If we share with more people then they’ll know more about our culture. That’s what we want to do.”
Historically speaking, the native people in Texas have never been overly welcome, getting ostracized first by the Spaniards who dropped anchor in the Gulf of Mexico, then by the French in Louisiana, the Mexicans from the south, and finally the Americans from all sides. For the most part they were either killed or driven out of the state, which is probably why there are only three tiny reservations remaining: the Alabama-Coshutta in Livingston; the Kickapoo in Eagle Pass; the Tigua in El Paso; and some loosely-based Cherokee groups around Houston. However, at one time the area now known as Texas was home to quite a few very powerful tribes including the Comanche, the Apache, the Wichita, the Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache, the Waco, the Caddo, the Karankawa, the Tonkawa, and the Atakapan.
At the intertribal powwow in Corpus, the numerous tribes represented include the Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Creek, Osage, Comanche, Potowattanie, and the Mescalero-Apache. The powwow is sponsored by the Coastal Bend Council of Native Americans, with grant money from the city as well as from the Texas Arts Commission. It’s part of a circuit which will take the group all over the state this fall to places like Corpus, Houston, Amarillo, Canyon Lake, and Austin.
Watching the crowd gather on the hockey rink-cum-powwow dance circle, it’s obvious that everyone knows or has heard of Tim and Paulette. Friends and acquaintances from past powwows wave toward the stage, at times bringing over gifts and letters to the table. Over the microphone, Tim says hi to familiar faces with a jovial Oklahoma drawl as if he were holding court in his own living room, even ordering a hamburger with cheese and bacon to a friend who’s headed out to lunch at the far end of the cavernous arena. “Robert’s headed to Whataburger, y’all, if anybody needs anything,” he says before introducing the Host Northern drum group from Kansas and Iowa. Afterwards, he turns to me and whispers, “we Indians love grease — can’t get enough of it,” and he switches the microphone back on and urges the entire arena to “be sure and get some of that Indian fry bread, ‘cause that grease’ll make yer skin smooth, yer hair shiny and child-bearin’ a pleasure.”
Finally the Grand Entrance begins and the day’s powwow is officially underway. Some fifty dancers, of every style and dress, fill the arena behind a U.S. color guard saluting Native American Veterans who served overseas. The dress and the colors are magnificent as the dancers circle the center drum, swirling and bobbing in rapturous celebration to the Great Spirit and the gathering of tribes. First, the traditional dancers enter the ritual circle behind Head Dancer Terry Tosigh, a Kiowa Indian about thirty-five years old, who is dressed in a buckskin warrior outfit with a long bone breastplate and a porcupine headdress.
Then the Fancy Dancers come in shaking their rattles and their impressive round eagle feather bustles. Just behind them the women come in single-file carrying fans and securing their place in the sacred hoop of the powwow with a powerful jingle of dresses. The dancers are of every age, from seven years to seventy. Some even carry infants in their arms as they step to the drum.
At one point an eagle feather gets dropped on the ground and the entire ceremony stops. Tim says, “Warren, dropped feather!” and Warren Wapepah, the arena director, runs through the halted, crowded dance floor to retrieve the downed down. A fallen feather is somewhat akin to the American flag touching the ground, and some even believe that the feather becomes an enemy of the person who dropped it and an elaborate ceremony must be performed to protect that person and reinstate the feather’s sacred vitality. On this particular occasion, it’s appropriate enough that one of the veterans dancing behind the color guard retrieve the feather.
When the drum stops, Melvin Kerchee, a Native American elder and a U.S. war veteran, says the prayer and the entire arena is still and quiet as he invokes the spirit of the American Indian heritage. “Grandfather,” he says, “I want to talk to you about men who have suffered. Many years ago I went to school for a short time and towards the end there was a little object they called Fat Man and Little Boy. When they dropped the objects many people died. Back then we called those people our enemy. Now we call them our friends. Grandfather, I want you to take care of our friends. You have taught me to respect others.” This is the spirit of the powwow.
Toward the end of the Grand Entry I realize that everyone involved, whether onlookers or friends of the dancers, has been sitting almost directly on or close to the floor of the arena. No one is possessive or jealous of their space. Everyone is welcome and everyone, once the drums get going, becomes part of the Native American tradition.
When I ask Charles Pratt what he thinks of non-Native Americans coming to the gatherings, he says, “I asked that same question when I was a kid attending powwows in Oklahoma with my grandparents, and the elder who I asked said to me, ‘If a man comes to your door and says ‘I’m hungry’ you let him in and feed him. What difference is it when a man comes to your door and says ‘I’m starved for culture?’”
If you go to a Texas powwow there are a few things you need to know to make the event more interesting and to make sure you don’t offend anybody. Having said that, don’t feel as though you need to research Native American history before you go. These are educational events where you’ll learn a lot just by showing up. Of course the more you know, the more you’ll enjoy the ceremony, and asking questions is a great way to talk with the dancers and the elders attending the powwow. If you’re lucky you might even get someone to tell you a story. Keep in mind that everyone is welcome at these gatherings and you can even get out there and dance in your street clothes during some of the invitational dances. Just listen to the emcee for your cue — he knows all there is to know about the events taking place.
There are a few details of etiquette for those who aren’t Native American and aren’t used to the ceremonies. Be sure to stand and remove your hat during the Grand Entry or whenever there is a Flag Song or an Honor Song. Also stand if an eagle feather is dropped and a ceremony takes place. Your dress should be modest and some powwow participants are offended if your legs aren’t covered. Don’t touch the dancers’ bustles or headdresses — the feathers are sacred — and don’t touch the dancers outfits as many are old and fragile. If you want to take photographs, you must ask permission from individuals as many still believe you are affecting their spirit. Also, photographs are not allowed during competition dance or during any sacred or special moments. Just ask a powwow official before you start snapping away. Finally, there are no drugs or alcohol allowed at powwows.
Once you’re inside be sure and listen to the Master of Ceremonies and take his cue. He knows what is going on and what is about to happen and can be your on-site guide. There are, however, a few terms and names you should look for to understand things a little better.
Head Man Dancer and Head Lady Dancer: The two dancers who hold these highly-regarded positions guide and direct the other dancers through the powwow and start the dance.
Arena Director: This is a position usually held by a former Head Dancer. He/she cues the drum order, coordinates the contest events, and generally keeps the powwow flowing on the floor.
Drums: There are normally 5-6 different drum groups consisting of five drummers/singers and one drum.
Center Drum: This is the most distinctive drum group. It is usually positioned at the center of the arena and is noted for its success in competition.
Host Southern Drum and the Host Northern Drum: These represent the two different rhythmic styles.
Head Singer: He/she starts the chants and leads the group.
Honor Dance: This is a special dance in which those persons or person being honored join in the dance around the Center Drum.
Blanket Dance: Spectators are often invited to join this dance, in which dance members toss coins on the blanket for the singers.
Round Dance or Friendship Dance: This is a dance in which everyone is invited to participate. The men dance around the Center Drum and the women dance around the men.
Most of the powwows in Texas take place during the fall although there are a few in the spring. The intertribal powwows usually cost $5 to get into, and the programs explaining the weekend’s events cost $1. On Saturdays there is a communal dinner break in which you’ll be able to taste some traditional cooking like Indian fry bread and Indian tacos.
Here’s a list of dates and places where you can attend.
August 1, 2009
Back to School Benefit POWWOW
(DISD Indian Ed Parent Advisory Committee)
2009 Spence Middle School
4001 Capitol Ave.
Dallas, Texas, 75204
Greg Kimber 214-641-5323
August 8th, 2009
Second Annual FWISD Powwow
(FWISD American Indian Education Program)
2009 Wilkerson Grienes Athletic Building
5201 C. A. Roberson Blvd
Fort Worth, Texas 76119
Alice Barrientez 817-871-2343 [email protected]
Rene Rodriguez 214-566-8496 [email protected]
Vendors: Paul Griffith 817-231-1818 [email protected]
817-231-1818 If no answer, Leave message
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