POW WOW: A Cultural, Traditional Event
The powwow is today perhaps the most public image of Native American culture. Because of the prominent role the powwow plays in how others see us, we firmly believe that it must be accurate and authentic in its presentation. In order to help others to understand how we view these events, we have put together this description of powwows with special emphasis on those taking place in off-reservation America. We hope you will view it as a sincere effort to increase understanding and mutual respect.
What is a powwow? The powwow is a gathering of natives – a bringing together of the North American Indian nations for social and spiritual renewal. For Indians in off-reservation America, the powwow is the most visible expression of their traditions – by storytellers, singers, and dancers; by artists, artisans, and traders; in goods sold or served, and in friendships reinforced and renewed.
Who should sponsor a powwow? Natives should. Powwow tradition requires a certain format and protocol. Powwows were born in Indian country, where a specific tribe or nation was the sponsor and virtually all of the participants knew the traditions. Off-reservation powwows are complicated by the fact that hundreds of Indian nations may be represented within a given community. This means there must be a coming together of views with respect to the traditions and cultures from these various nations. An off-reservation powwow is best sponsored by an Indian organization which can bring together these views in a coherent, honest fashion which will appropriately inform observers.
Are non-Natives welcome at powwows? Non-Natives are welcome at publicly-advertised powwows. Sharing our traditions is intended to inform and educate. There is no doubt in our minds that this is best done by our own people. Given the distortions, lies, and omissions of the history books of this land, Native people have good reason not to trust others to tell their stories. It is also important to remember that what takes place at a powwow is not simply a performance, such as one might see in a theater or sports arena. A powwow is expression of reality-based practices and traditions. We have worked hard to maintain our traditions in the face of great resistance. The powwow is one way of doing that. And to remain true to our own culture, we must be the ones who tell the story.
What about spirituality? Spirituality, in our culture, is seen as universally present in every thing and every body. We have no need to propagate a certain creed or belief system or insist that everyone must believe as we do. That is the essence of freedom, to make one’s own choices. But the way we practice our own spirituality must be respected as our right, whether it be in the most private of ceremonies or those which take place in powwows.
Do Native Americans have an exclusive claim to the circle? As we have learned more and more about our brothers and sisters around the world, we understand that we share many beliefs, practices, and traditions which have emanated from our respective indigenous origins. We encourage all people to find their ancestral and traditional roots, wherever these might be. The circle is a universal concept – Mother Earth and Grandmother Moon are prominent manifestations thereof. The circle belongs to everyone. But we insist that as Native Americans, American Indians, Natives, First Nations – whatever name is selected – we must define and present our culture and our circle.
What do we ask? We encourage all people prior to attending or publicizing a proclaimed Native, Native American, or American Indian powwow or other “Native-based” happening to check with a legitimate Indian organization as to the authenticity or fraudulence of the event unless a specific, clearly recognized Native organization has been identified as the sponsor. And, if you attend a powwow, you should follow the directions and examples of the master of ceremonies, arena director, and/or other participants as to proper etiquette.
Thank you for your consideration.
— Adapted by Adrienne Brant James from Indian World News November 1996.