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Powwow Mania


We could hear it from the parking lot -- the rattling of dried deer toes, the shaking of silver cones, the beating of a dozen drums. Trucks and vans were plastered with bumper stickers that read things like "The Indians discovered Columbus" and "On the Powwow Circuit." Rear view mirrors were adorned with dream catchers. No doubt about it -- Daphne and I were in the right place! After weeks of befriending Native American tribes across the South West, we were finally going to experience one of their long-held traditions: the Powwow.

Powwows -- or "celebrations," as they used to be called -- are festive gatherings of Native Americans that include singing, dancing and merriment. Long ago, they were primarily held in spring to celebrate life's rebirth, but nowadays, powwows are held year-round across the U.S. In fact, some people spend months and even years "on the circuit," traveling from town to town to the different powwows held nearly every weekend. We met an Apache who estimated he had been to 300 powwows in his life!

So what is the draw? A big one is the dancing. At this particular powwow -- which was held in Killeen, Texas -- dancers performed in an enormous circle smack in the middle of a covered arena. Their costumes were extraordinary: elaborate headdresses made of eagle feathers, necklaces made of bone and horn, colorful shawls, sashes, cloth leggings, moccasins, fringe, shells, bells, and beads, beads, beads. Everyone we met had made their own costume, and there seemed to be a story behind each piece. A Shoshone Indian, for instance, had beaded roses all over his costume to symbolize eternal beauty. A Comanche wore a rainbowed head ornament to represent all the colors of the world. Some Indians painted their faces to complete their tribal looks.

A few of the dances were open, meaning that audience members could participate if they felt so inspired, but most were limited to Native Americans of particular ages or genders. Cash prizes were awarded to the best dancers, so everyone really got into it. We watched a dozen different dances, including the men's grass dance and the ladies' traditional buckskin dance, and were amazed by the intricate footwork involved. The Backstreet Boys could learn a thing or two from them! Other dances were performed with the dignity and grace of a prima ballerina. (The Ladies' Fancy Shawl Dance is often compared to a butterfly floating across a prairie.) All of the dances were accompanied by drumming and chanting.

Another big draw at powwows is the arts and crafts. At this particular powwow, several dozen artists had set up booths offering everything from beaded moccasins to cedar flutes. We met two artists -- Slim "Dream Maker" Morales and his wife Kay -- who made their living by selling their wares on the powwow circuit. Their impressive display included healing sticks constructed out of deer antlers, turquoise jewelry, and fans made of turkey feathers, bamboo, and leather.

Dream catchers, however, were their hottest selling item. Kay told us the tale behind them: "Legend has it that Grandmother Spider, who sang the universe into existence, was saddened by the bad dreams of her human children. So she went to the willow tree and asked him for a branch, then went to the eagle and asked him for a feather. She bent the branches of the willow into a circle that connected all the people of the world and spun her web of wisdom around them. This web caught her children's bad dreams in the night, and in the morning, Grandfather Sun's rays burned them away. Any bad dreams that were left turned into morning dew and trickled down the feather and fell back to the earth."

A third reason to go to a powwow is the tasty home-cooking! We tried the fry bread -- a staple in the diets of Navajo and Sioux Indians that is round like a tortilla and puffy like a funnel cake. Flour, baking powder, salt and hot water are the primary ingredients, but we can't tell you how much, because the Indians we met didn't use measuring cups! Brenda Sam, a Navajo, learned how to make fry bread when she was only eight years old. She said the secret is making sure the grease is very hot before you submerge the dough. When it's done right, it's light and fluffy. Fry bread is often eaten with mutton stew, but we had ours taco-style, with beans, tomatoes, lettuce and cheese. Mmmmm!

The biggest draw at powwows, however, is the people. Powwows enable Native Americans of every tribe -- Apache, Comanche, Sioux, Cherokee, Shoshone, to name a few -- to gather together, share ideas, renew old friendships and make new ones. It is also an opportunity to re-affirm what it means to be Indian.

"It is a great honor for me to come out and represent my tribe," said Lita Cochram, a member of the Taino tribe of Puerto Rico. "It's a chance for us to learn about each other's culture, which helps us understand one another. And that strengthens our society as a whole."

Although Lita was referring to Native Americans, the spirit of her words could be applied to us all!


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - Discovering what makes Sherman Alexie tick
Daphne - Cheerleaders and cowboys among the Native Americans?
Daphne - Living with those pesky, loud tourists at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico
Stephanie - The time honored traditions of the Taos Pueblo Indians
Team - A little Native American-style Q & A to get your brain juices going