My Native American Pow Wow experience

I said in my introduction that Native American culture and spirituality are of great interest to me. But how come? In 1997/1998 I was living in Bozeman, Montana (USA) studying American history and literature. Montana has been and still is home of different Native Nations. Today you´ll find 8 Indian Nations living on reservations in Montana, among them the NIITSITAPI BLACKFEET and the APSAALOOKE CROW. During my stay I had the chance to experience my first powwow. It was a big event, took several hours, and it left a profound feeling and deep impression on me. On my journey to the USA in 2014 I had another chance to be guest at a powwow. In this blog entry I will explain the most important facts about a powwow and my personal experiences. My information comes from personal talks with the people on site and from what I had learned before during my travels and studies over the years. If you have further questions, please contact me.

What is a powwow? It is an event in which Native American people meet, dance, sing, socialize and pray. This way the Native American culture is renewed and the heritage is preserved. Non-Natives are invited to join as well. However, public guests are welcome during specific hours only.

The singers: there are different singers from different nations. The songs are related to a specific tribe. Some songs have words, others only vocables/chanting so that everyone can join when shared. The most important symbol in a powwow is the drum. It carries the heartbeat of the Indian Nation, of Mother Earth, and calls the Spirits and nations together. The drum may be thought of as a person or a being and therefore needs to be respected as such. The beat of the drums is almost hypnotizing. I could feel the beat like a vibration, crawling up from my feet through my body into my head. I could feel the stomping of feet dancing in rhythm. This feeling is almost impossible to describe. I can well understand that this is the way for the First People to get in contact with their ancestors, the Spirits. While dancing, they pray. I think you can well see that in some of the pictures. In their faces you can see the trance-like condition of body and mind, see the connection to the Spirits, the ancestors. This is fascinating to see.

Clothing: First of all: one never calls the clothing “a costume”! The dance clothing is referred to as “regalia” or “outfit”. Regalia are unique to each dancer and also to each dance. The artwork is fantastic; fabrics and beadwork contain personal motifs and designs that reflect the dancers’ heritage.

When I arrived at the powwow site in Ossipee, New Hampshire in September 2014 (which was a bit hard to find in the beautiful but lonely woods of New Hampshire) I was welcomed with open arms and big smiles. I was the only non-native and people were eager to hear where I come from and how I happened to be here. I was assured that I could ask anybody anything. Everyone would be happy to help with information or explanations. I asked when and if I was allowed to take photographs and I was told I should listed to the announcements. At first I was a bit nervous because I didn´t want to be disrespectful, but after the first conversations I felt easy. Powwows are usually non-profit, you don´t pay to be part of it. You may donate to support the organization team. Donations are encouraged as a way to honor someone. I filled in a little form explaining why I was here and where I came from and looked for a place to sit. When I entered the site, the sacred circle ( in which the dancing would take place) was dominant. Benches and folding stairs were arranged around the circle. Everyone was very kind and greeted. The air was filled with the scent of Frybread. The event of a Powwow is also a good opportunity to sell and buy jewelry, incenses like sage, apparel, dreamcatchers etc. While I was sitting on the bench waiting for the dancing to start, two men approached me. They heard that I was from Germany and offered to answer my questions. They explained a lot about the event and about when to take pictures. I was asked to stand when everyone else stands and sit when everyone else sits and other than that listen to what the announcer says (he is the Master of Ceremony). I closely watched the entrance to the sacred circle as each dancer and active participant was smudged. The smudging ceremony is an ancient custom for indigenous people. Plants such as sage, tobacco, cedar, sweet grass and others are used to purify the body, the aura, the space around from negative energies and to restore balance. The smoke carries the prayers to the ancestors. It is not allowed to take photographs during smudging as it is a sacred act. The announcer entered the circle (usually from the East). He welcomed everyone and explained the schedule and the “rules” of this event – the etiquette. The Powwow began with the Great Entry and three Honoring Songs. These songs honored the different participants and their nations, the US flag and the Native American Nations Flags, and the last song honored all Veterans of the event.*1 So during the Grand Entry everyone was asked to stand. Flags were brought into the arena. Usually flags include the U.S. Flag, Tribal Flags, and Eagle Staffs of various Native Nations present. Veterans carried the flags.

Native Americans hold the United States Flag in an honored position despite the horrible treatment received from this country. The flag has a dual meaning. First it is a way to remember all of the ancestors that fought against this country. It is also the symbol of the United States which Native Americans are now a part of. The flag here also reminds people of those people who have fought for this country… Following the veterans are other important guests of the powwow including tribal chiefs, princesses, elders, and powwow organizers. Next in line are the male dancers. The men are followed by the women dancers. Once everyone is in the arena, the song ends and a song is sung to honor the flags and the veterans. After a prayer, the dancing resumes, usually with a few round dances. After the round dances, intertribal dancing songs are sung and everyone dances to the beat of the drum.*2

I had two hours only to experience this powwow, but I enjoyed every minute of it. At times I was deeply moved by unexpected feelings such as awe, happiness, respect, gratefulness or shame. Before I left I bought some things from the vendors. Their craftsmanship is extraordinary. I agreed with the organization team that I would send the photographs taken during the event to Mother Earth´s Creation. I did and they thanked me for my interest, my coming and allowed me once more to use the pictures on my website. I am very grateful for their kindness, their explanation, and their warm welcome!

Click on the image for full view. 

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