Pow wows just aren’t what they used to be, according to a handful of elders across the Plains states. There was a time, not too long ago, when a pow wow was not about contests or fancy regalia, but was simply a gathering of family and friends, with homemade food, giveaways and unnamed dances.
Commercial is the word most often used to describe today’s pow wows, as opposed to traditional, as they were called on Pine Ridge, South Dakota. In the 1960s, Lydia Bear Killer, Oglala Lakota Tribal Council member, remembers going with her grandmother. “There were no contests, no categories, no concession stands.” Bear Killer said, remembering that most people spoke Lakota, and the children listened to the stories told by their grandparents. “The grandmothers talked about medicines they made. I used to see a root she had; it looked like a little human and I was scared on that,” she laughed. “It was bitterroot.”
Families camped there and ate together, Bear Killer said, adding, “All the tiospaye [extended family] were together. It was time to visit.” From Bear Killer’s perspective, pow wows are no longer the relaxing events of times gone by. “Today it’s really fast. It’s more stress than relaxing,” she said.
Richie Plass, founder of the Bittersweet Winds Mascot Exhibit and Lifetime Achievement Award winner of the 2013 Indian Summer Music Awards, remembers being “a little fella” back when pow wows were called “Doings” on the Menominee Reservation. “We would don our attire and we would do all these different kinds of dances. There was nothing called categories, we just all danced,” Plass said. “Then at night, we would wait around until they would put a blanket over the drum. My dad would call out, ‘Where are the kids? He would count noses and give us each three to five bucks.”
Dakota Vietnam War veteran Myron Williams said that when he was young, the dancing was much less organized. “Back in ’92 and ’94, people would bring a lot of food,” Williams said.
“Singers would come and go, dancers would come and go, families would honor their families and have giveaways. It could have gone on for months.”
Remembering a time when people traveled a great distance simply to see their relatives, Pat Northrup, Dakota, said the purpose of the pow wow was much different. “Families were close. Maybe you didn’t see your uncle all year and then he showed up and they shared whatever they had,” Northrup said. “When you were all together you planned something special, a naming ceremony, honoring the person who got their name. They wanted there to be some reverence. Now it’s overdone.”
Even the Grand Entry is not traditional, Northrup said. “Buffalo Bill brought that about, and rodeos. When he recruited all the Natives to be in his troop, he had the Grand Entry to show them off. So that is what we have adopted—Buffalo Bill.”
With so many contest pow wows these days, Northrup misses the pow wow’s original intention. “Why create a feeling of competition? Not everybody dances the same. They dance how they feel,” she said. “How do you judge something like that? It’s beyond me.”
At a pow wow in Mankato, Minnesota, Northrup remembered when a young man came into the circle in a heavy, green, woolen blanket. “He went out and danced with that and he danced really good. It was something to see,” Northrup recalls. “My mom said, ‘That is how it’s done.’ She was looking at him and saying he was really enjoying himself, and he didn’t have the big eagle bustle or the bead-work, just the blanket. That’s what it’s about. Just being with the people,” Northrop said.
“When I danced it was for a reason,” Plass said. “There was no category or points.”
Plass recalled a time when a woman came and sat next to him in the stands. “‘Hey, I heard you used to dance,’ she said. I told her, yes, I used to dance, and she asked me, ‘fancy or traditional?’ I said, no, I just danced. The attire is beautiful. The craft work is great, phenomenal, but it’s almost like a business. I have seen people who make their kids dance and I was always taught if a young one cries and says they don’t want to dance, you don’t push them into it.”
“If I want to dance today,” Plass said, taking a breath, “I have been stopped at the door because I don’t have a number, so the mindset is different.”
Most feel that the lack of job opportunities on the reservation brought in the contests and prize money, bringing people in from two and three states away. Wilma Thin Elk, an Oglala elder in Pine Ridge, said this about the prize money and craft industries: “Nowadays, because of the hardship, people have to find a way to make ends meet. Some have big families and they have to make a living.”
Thin Elk is often seen at local pow wows and fairs selling the crafts she makes at home. “The few dollars I make, if I make any, pays for my phone or electric. But for the dancers, it’s like going to the casino. They travel and have to pay their lodging, food, gas and meals to get there. Some of the dancers may be top-notch, and they still don’t win. It’s like going to a casino with $100.”
Some of the more aesthetic aspects of the pow wow have changed as well. When Bear Killer was a little girl, she said, “There was a lot of buckskin and those [cowry] shells. I most of all remember the mazaska, the old coins, on traditional ladies’ dresses. And then I saw a lot of the grandmas using military casings; some hung it on their belts with their bone knives.”
Eagle feathers are new to South Dakota’s pow wows. “When I was a senior in high school, these guys from Oklahoma came up with eagle bustles,” Williams said. “We never had that in South Dakota, and then in the Eighties some guy started making bustles, and then all of a sudden, the women were wearing eagle plumes. If you look at the books, I don’t think I have seen a woman with an eagle plume yet.”
Williams marveled at today’s beaded feathers and moccasins.
“My sister asked me to carry her bag with her beaded dress and holy shit, this thing is heavy! How the heck you wear this thing?” Laughing, Williams wondered if that’s why the girls dance in one spot.
Northrup recalls regalia was handmade and often given as an honor. “Maybe auntie made a dress for a young girl. Everything didn’t all match, but the girl was honored and was proud. Now, that pride has gone, and they sew things on to get the money. Even the little ones hurry up and get on line to get their pay,” Northrup said.
For Plass, the very definition of a pow wow is a gathering of family and friends to celebrate, tell stories, eat food, meet new friends and carry on what they were taught. “I am not saying one is right or one is wrong, but that’s the way it is. When I watch the dancers, I see them spinning, jumping, turning, and they aren’t even in rhythm with the beat,” Plass said. “I will watch a dancer and wonder if they are doing it for the same reason we did. I wonder what his story is. I wonder what that means, why did they turn that way. Men and women dancing are telling their stories and that is getting kind of missed now.”
Williams also recalls more traditional times. “I would listen to my grandfather. I go back to those days when we enjoyed ourselves. We were just the common people, no titles, no positions. We were surviving, we didn’t know we were poor, we had a roof over our head, we had food and clothes. But today, everybody wants to be empowered and they go to extremes to find that empowerment. They have to be a better dancer, singer, better medicine man. It’s become a contest.”
Williams laughed. “For some reservations, the pow wow was a ceremony and a spiritual part of life. Now we have pow wow medicine men who know everything about everything. It’s kind of comical. I have to keep from busting from laughing.
They now have so many rules about a feather and about the drum, I wonder how they get into the arena with all the rules…”