Powwows and Why You Should Attend Them by Najah Lightfoot
Aproud Native American man brushes past you. You try not to stare, but your mind is having a hard time placing the beauty and majesty of his clothing. Your gaze lingers over the bright plumes adorning his head. His legs are wrapped in deer hide. You hear the sound of many bells ringing as he walks by.
From the corner of your eye you spy a young Native American girl. She is dressed in the colors of her tribe. She is wearing a jingle dress—a dress made with layered tin cones that sound like chimes when she dances. Another girl wears a brightly colored shawl with fringes that almost touch the ground.
You wind your way through the crowd into the arena. The announcer is calling for all the dancers to get ready for the next contest. The next drum group gets ready. They beat the drum so deeply that your heartbeat matches its rhythm.
Not ready to settle down, you return to the vendors, to shop for sage and sweetgrass, precious works of arts, and magical flutes. Along the way, you decide to get in the line for fry bread or Indian tacos. Where are you? You have entered the world of the Native American powwow, a gathering of tribes from across North America. A meeting place filled with Native American women, men, and children, as well as non-Native people who come to partake in the festivities.
If you’ve ever lit a sage bundle or used white sage for cleansing and purification (known as smudging), then at least once in your life you should attend a powwow. Go as an homage to the peoples whose traditions have been mainstreamed into spiritual culture with little regard or respect for their time-honored practices.
While most of us practice traditions and rituals that stem from European ancestry, here in North America, we live, move, and breathe on soil that was first settled, honored, and revered by Native American people. Smudging is usually one of the first practices we learn as magickal people. Some of us may have attended a sweat lodge ceremony. By attending a powwow you come face to face with the people and the culture from which those practices are derived.
In the spring of 2016 I was blessed to journey to Mesa Verde National Park. For years my husband and I had wanted to make this trip. A journey to Mesa Verde is a pilgrimage within itself. Mesa Verde is the land of cliff dwellings. It is the home of the ancient Anasazi people, who are more accurately known as the Ancestral Pueblo people. Mesa Verde is located forty-five minutes west of Durango, Colorado. The city of Durango sits in the southwest corner of Colorado, about an eight-hour drive from the bustling metropolis of Denver. Once you make the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, you must then drive approximately one hour up steep, windy roads to get to the cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Pueblo people.
After you arrive at the parking lot, a steep and treacherous path awaits your footsteps. But it is truly worth the journey. When your eyes land on the homes of these ancient people, your spirit senses the reverence these ancient ancestors had for nature. Circles are incorporated into their dwellings or ceremonial rooms, known as kivas. Petroglyphs of spirals and mysterious symbols mark cliff dwelling walls.
The Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited Mesa Verde from 550 CE to 1300 CE. No one knows exactly what happened to them or why they left their homes after centuries of habitation. But we do know their descendants are the Native people who migrated to Arizona and New Mexico and also remained in the southern part of Colorado.
Attending a Powwow
Denver, Colorado, hosts one of the largest powwows in the nation. The Denver March Powwow is held around the time of the spring equinox at the Denver Coliseum.
I try never to miss a Denver March Powwow. As the light returns to the Northern Hemisphere and fresh green plants begin to emerge from the ground, I know powwow time is right around the corner.
My soul surges and my spirit soars as I sit in the arena and watch the colorful dancers. As they spin and dance to the beat of the drum, I sometimes find tears sliding down my cheeks. I cry because I know Mother Earth smiles as her children remember her with dance and song. The flurry of colors and the spinning of dancers reminds me of the Pagan song “She’s Been Waiting” by Paula Walowitz.
For those of us who drum, you cannot beat the power of the drum at a powwow. Groups of ten or more people are gathered around a single enormous drum. They beat the drums and sing for the contests and the dancers. The arena is lined with so many drums, you can hardly walk around the perimeter. Many people stand at the edge of the drum circle, while the drummers drum and the singers sing, to feel the rhythm and the heartbeat.
As you watch the dancers compete in the highest levels of competition, you too may feel called to join in the dance. And while the competitions are reserved for tribal members, several times throughout the powwow, the announcer will call for the “intertribal.” This is where non-Native American people can join with the dancers in full regalia on the floor and dance to the drum. Dancing the intertribal is an ecstatic experience! You may find yourself going around the floor, trying to mimic the steps as young and old alike step to the sound of the drum. Once you’ve danced the intertribal, you will always want to return to the Powwow.
Powwows are held in Canada and North America. The website www.powwows.com is a great resource for finding powwows in your area. Albuquerque, New Mexico, hosts the Gathering of Nations Powwow, the largest powwow in North America.
Here is a short list of Powwows held in North America:
Denver March Powwow—Denver, CO
Gathering of Nations Powwow—Albuquerque, NM
Cherokees of Alabama Spring Indian Powwow—Arab, AL
Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb Annual Powwow—Noble, LA
Monacan Indian Nation Powwow—Elon, VA
Rules of Etiquette
• The clothing is called regalia. It is insulting to refer the clothing as a costume.
• Don’t stare. You will see jaw-dropping beauty, but do your best not to stare.
• Ask politely if you may take a picture. Some people may be okay with having their pictures taken; others may not.
• Follow the cues from the announcer. They are instrumental in conducting the flow of the powwow, and you just may learn a thing or two.
• While lots of vendors come to the powwow, try to buy your items from Native American vendors. This is a good way to pay respect for your sage, sweetgrass, and trinkets. Plus your dollars will go a long way in helping tribes and families.
• In addition to the dancers, Native Americans hold an enormous place of honor for veterans and members of military. While their numbers may be small in terms of demographic data, Native Americans have the highest number of enlisted men and women for their population in the United States. Show respect and stand during the Grand Entry, while the men and women who have served their country enter the arena.
• There are also many booths that deal with current issues specific to Native American people. You can buy tapes and CDs of drum music, donate to a cause, and purchase T-shirts with Native American sayings.
• Finally, have fun! Wander around and meet some new people. Take time to speak with the vendors and offer a handshake. Find the one item you’ve been searching for but didn’t know you needed.
If you can’t make it to a powwow this year, put it on your calendar for next year. Hold it in your mind that someday, somehow, you will make it to a North American powwow.
The living hoop of the powwow allows us to touch ancient beliefs and practices similar to our own. It is good to honor the people from whom we use so many things, to keep and honor the Old Ways.