Why you should care
Experiencing the aboriginal culture up close is a feast for the senses.
It’s a sultry summer evening when Darla Black steps out in front of hundreds of onlookers at the Oglala Lakota Nation Wacipi Rodeo Fair, the annual powwow on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation. A survivor of domestic abuse and former tribal leader, Black talks passionately about what can be done to reduce violence against Native women and girls on and off reservations across North America.
Powwows are important events for meaningful discussion on issues facing America’s aboriginal communities. But they’re also a celebration — one that can be experienced by Native Americans and nonnatives alike.
A cultural rather than a ceremonial gathering, powwows are held all over North America, often off-reservation — in cities and stadiums — and at various times of the year. The largest in North America is the Gathering of Nations Powwow held every April in New Mexico, which attracts as many as 100,000 people. They’re a compendium of pre-Colombian life in its various forms: war dancers, remembrances for the dead, drum music and much more. For nonaboriginals, powwows offer a window into the often underrepresented worlds of artistry, dance and culture of Native Americans.
Held over two to three days, though sometimes longer, powwows are a chance for Native groups to catch up with friends, which is especially important for those who live on isolated reservations. For many children, it’s the one time of the year to see their unique heritage, in all its forms, fully out in the open.
“The main aspects of a powwow are the drum and dancing, and (the) many dance contests. The dancing originates from ancestral, ceremonial dances,” explains Lindsey Manshack of the Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb in Louisiana. She’s also written on the evolution of powwows. “American Indian people often learn of these dances, along with creation stories, through storytelling, a central practice of American Indian culture. Elders share stories and link the past to the present.”
The first weekend of August sees the otherwise dusty village of Pine Ridge transformed into a feast of noise, motion and especially color. Here the powwow is called a wacipi — a term used by the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota Great Plains tribes, collectively known as the Sioux.
Soon a fervid, trance-like atmosphere descends on the arena.
Throughout the evening, teams of drummers, dotted around a circular grass arena, take turns pounding a large animal hide drum with precise timing — a reverberation meant to represent Mother Earth’s beating heart. At times, people in full traditional dress move slowly in a circular direction (mirroring the sun’s movement across the sky) around the arena. Often called the round dance, the “circle of creation” is a prominent part of Lakota spirituality. Soon a fervid, trance-like atmosphere descends on the arena. Competitions in dance and tribal regalia are a central part of the powwow, with prizes ranging from cash to clothing and traditional blankets (known as serapes by the Navajo Nation).
While powwows have a celebratory feel, they are not festivals or concerts. Visitors should be sensitive to the traditions and events — no waving your phone around or livestreaming. Some folks, including dancers, won’t want their photos taken, so it’s always best to ask first; strike up a conversation and introductions and stories will likely quickly follow. If you’d like to get involved, listen out for announcements introducing intertribal songs — occasionally visitors are invited to take part in dances.
Which can be both a moving and enriching experience. “Nonnatives can learn a great deal about the culture in song and music and art and crafts,” says Jamie K. Oxendine of the Lumbee Tribe, historically centered in North Carolina and east of the Mississippi. In between performances, tribal council members and organizers talk movingly about the younger generation’s deep commitment to the culture as borne out by their high-quality dancing and detailed regalia.
However, some groups see powwows as an opportunity to share their own spiritual messages, which isn’t appreciated by all locals. For example, Christian missionaries taking part in humanitarian work in the Pine Ridge area who also make themselves visible at the powwows are unwelcome to some because of their proselytizing, but others like that they help entertain kids with activity camps. There have been allegations against the missionaries of conversion tactics.
Still, there’s a very strong sense of community at the events — but also at the camping areas. Many out-of-towners camp on-site (reservation police are present at all times), and the tightly bunched tents, campers and cars combine to create a festive, family atmosphere.
And waking up the next morning to the humming of cicadas under that huge South Dakota sky? Well, you won’t be able to help feeling excited for the day’s events to come and have a new appreciation for the history and people of this land.
The Yuba Sutter Winter Powwow takes place in Marysville, California, on Feb. 15, and the Honoring our Elders Winter Wacipi is held in Welch, Minnesota, from Feb. 21-23. All 2020 events are listed here.
Go There: A Native American Powwow
- Where: The events are held year-round across North America, often in stadiums. The most enlightening experiences, however, are held on reservations. The Oglala Lakota Nation Wacipi Rodeo Fair on Pine Ridge Reservation takes place the first weekend of August.
- What to do: The best part is to simply get lost in the drumbeat and visual theater. At the Oglala Lakota Nation Wacipi Rodeo Fair, there’s a local rodeo event (Friday and Saturday) and horse racing meet (Sunday) held in adjacent fields (entry to each is $10).
- Pro tip: If attending the Pine Ridge event, plan to camp. The ceremonial dances, competitions and basketball games can continue into the late hours and start back up at daybreak. The $10 entry fee includes parking and camping.