Powwow: Neophytes & Natives

   In a word, powwow is 'festival.' The colorful feathered, jeweled and beaded participants,  represent the mysterious, masterful or comedic, often times with smiles dressing their faces and eagle feathers dressing their heads and backs. I'm impressed by the good dancers, especially mens traditional competitions where the colors are subdued with eagle-bone breast plates, porcupine quills, eagle feather roaches and bustles, symbolic designs, colored cloth, leggings of leather fringe and fur, bells tied to ankles, and worn moccassins. Although there are many great mens fancy dancers wearing wildly florescent red, blue and white-colored roaches, bustles and leggings, they tend to be the younger dancers. All are truly athletic to dance in competition as it takes a great deal of stamina to dance to the drum. Google 'powwow' sometime and choose a well-watched video in the listing and you get an idea of its action and energy.

  Women jingle and shawl dancers are just as competitive. Again, I prefer the traditional styles of regalia (it's not called costume) to the florescent non-traditional look although the latter can be wildly brilliant. Jingle and shawl dances have distinctive steps all paced to the beat of the drum. Women of all ages participate, from elder ages to four years old, and maybe younger; the older dancers, men and women, coaching the younger dancers when they sometimes intermingle.

  From what I've observed these past four years, some non-Native newcomers: regional tourists, and those from adjoining states and other countries, walk past traditional and fancy powwow participants as though walking through a circus or Mardi Gras crowd, eying them as curiosities then talking among themselves as though the powwow participants are walled-off for their amusement. I've observed attitudes of those non-participants who act like 'all this,' is for their entertainment and privilege; that they can ignore Grand Entry instruction, wander anywhere they want beyond the arbor or arena, take photographs of anyone without permission, touch regalia, and cast an overall aversion to this assembly of people unlike themselves. Native American powwow participants and their families are private individuals just like anyone else, doing what they like to do.

   I smile when I see the 'tourist photographers' in the crowd, the people with the expensive Nikon and Canon cameras sporting long telephoto lenses. I've been just as naive as they are, learning about powwow through trial and error. Over the course of these four years, I've known humiliation, just as I've known patience and understanding --and now, with friends and relatives among them, I've learned much more about the collective whole as simply human beings. I've also learned that many Natives are learning their language and culture, just as I am to a degree, and many more know less than I do.

   Cultural ignorance can be altered through education I firmly believe. Forever a student, as I said before, I read as many contemporary texts about American history relating to Native American and non-Native interaction/relationship building I can find. I do a lot of listening too.  Although forever a student, I'm no longer a newcomer or tourist. Many faces and names are familiar to me now; we can have conversations, share a joke, pictures or comments on Facebook. 

I've read many books by Dr. Anton Treuer and his brother, David Treurer (pronounced 'troyer'), titles of which you can find on-line. For several months, I've been reading a book titled: The White Earth Tragedy: Ethnicity and Dispossession at a Minnesota Anishinaabe Reservation, 1889-1920; by Melissa L. Meyer, University of Nebraska Press, 1994. A very interesting book.


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