Each year in early March, Indian Country Media Network loads up its Pow Wow Database with the dates, times and location of more than 400 pow wows—the sheer number of which is an indication of the strength of this ever-evolving celebration of Indian dance, music and culture. The variety and style of these pow wows is as varied as the many ways these events are called: powwow. Pow-Wow. Pau wau. For the record, and for clarity’s sake, Indian Country Media Network uses the simple two-word form, capitalized only when part of a name or title. Pre-dating today’s grand entry and multiple dance contests and drum groups, the term ‘pow wow’ was derived from the Algonquian language for the act of dreaming. A pow wow, it is said, signified a medicine man whose visions gave him power and skill.
Whether indoor or outdoor, one-day long or weekend events, intertribal gatherings with dancers from many nations competing for cash prizes, or local events celebrating a particular Nation’s traditions, a person traveling the pow wow trail would reasonably expect to find a drum group and singers, a grand entry of all participants, an MC with a lively and humorous touch at the mike, and a collection of Native artisans selling everything from hand-drums to jewelry to hand-carved leather and wood. Without a doubt, one would also be able to enjoy frybread in its tastiest form, the Indian taco.
Pow wow season typically kicks off in March with the Denver Pow Wow, and the most well-known gatherings can be huge affairs, from the Gathering of Nations to the scenic splendor of Crow Fair to Oklahoma’s Red Earth Festival.
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The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska lays claim to holding the oldest pow wow in North America with its Annual Homecoming Celebration, but for much of history through modern times Indian gatherings were not only frowned upon, they were illegal.
As far back as 1646 in Massachusetts, Native dancing and singing was outlawed as a means to eradicate religious practices deemed sinful and devilish by the colonists. These days, given the extensive regalia, dances and drums on Indian Country Media Network alone, it’s hard to imagine the perseverance required by Native Peoples in the past to continue their traditions. However, they survived and the world is better for it.
Pow wows are sport, song and spectacle rolled into one. First-time visitors will enjoy a unique experience that is family friendly. While much of the culture may appear foreign at first glance, basic rules are simple to understand and easy to follow.