Intertribal Dance and Cross Cultural Communication: Traditional Powwows in Ohio
Sanchez, Victoria E., Communication Studies
Powwows such as those in the central Ohio area offer opportunity to explore a complex set of interand intracultural communication. American Indian efforts to increase common understanding of contemporary Native America, powwow stresses American Indian commonalities in relation to mainstream American culture. In the context of the American Indian community they stress tribal individuality and they value intertribal negotiation rather than pan-ethnic conglomeration or assimilation.
It is Sunday afternoon, and the skies are bright and clear under a warming sun. The weekend's dancing has worn slick the grass in the outdoor arena, flattening it into a clockwise circle. "Intertribal Dance. Everybody dance? crackles the voice of the powwow's emcee over an antiquated PA system. The Head Man and Head Woman dancer enter the arena from the east, with a nod to the arena director. More and more dancers follow until the arena is a mass of swirling color. Men and women traditional dancers step with dignity while Fancy Dancers execute impossibly intricate and lightning fast footwork. Children barely old enough to stand dance holding their mothers' hands while younger ones snuggle in mothers' arms. Amid the confident dancers and varied American Indian dance outfits are a number of dancers in street clothes, powwow visitors who have been moved by the heartbeat rhythm of the drums and have answered the invitation to dance in unity. The Arena Director watches them emulate the Head Man and Head Woman dancer; he is always pleased when the code of respect, spirituality, and community around which the contemporary American Indian powwow is centered is honored.
POWWOW AS CULTURAL COMMUNICATION
Powwows are American Indian(1) celebrations of community and spirituality, featuring American Indian drum and dance as well as vendors offering American Indian foods, craft items and various other materials. Powwows in Central Ohio, like most powwows across North America which are open to the public, are an important venue for intercultural relations. At powwows, especially in the Central Ohio area where Indians are intensely engaged in renegotiating their relationship to the nonIndian society, a sense of unified Indian community is, out of political necessity, constructed. However, there is often quite a range of organizational, tribal and individual difference involved. As one locus of this negotiation, powwow is an amazingly complex and successful working model of intracultural and intercultural communication. In an effort to increase common understanding of contemporary Native America, powwow stresses American Indian commonalities in relation to mainstream American culture while also stressing tribal individuality within the American Indian community. Culturally knowledgeable participants value intertribal negotiation rather than pan-ethnic conglomeration or assimilation.
Powwows are an important bridge between American Indians and non-Indians, although many problems and conflicts must be confronted in order to create and maintain this cultural bridge. Powwows are a very complex form of communication on many levels--from the personal to the political--both among American Indian nations and between "Native America" and mainstream America. Following the discussion of methodological framework and a brief descriptive overview, two main sections discuss powwow in relation to intertribal negotiation and to intercultural communication. The intertribal negotiation section concentrates on symbolic patterns that enact the spiritual, reinforcing and creating a sense of community, continuity and unity. The section includes discussion of the changing demographics and of respecting intertribal differences-inescapable realities of contemporary American Indian life. The intercultural communication section concentrates on ways powwows create an intricate code of cross cultural respect and strategies that facilitate crosscultural understanding. The concluding section addresses the issues of differential identity, "pan-Indianism" and intertribal cooperation in relation to powwow.
There is surprisingly little scholarship concerning American Indian powwows and none which addresses the full complexity of powwows and their role in Native America. Although there are increasing numbers of newspaper and magazine articles announcing American Indian powwows and covering events (most often as cultural tourism), and there are now a few good children's books devoted to the color and action of the powwows and the dancers (Ancona, 1993; Braine, 1995; King and Whipple, 1993; Rendon and Bellville, 1996), and there are a few photography collections which include the thoughts of the subjects (Contreras and Bernstein, 1996; Mara, 1996; Roberts, 1992), there remains very little critical/analytical material on the subject. Toelken's (1991) "Ethnic Selection and Intensification in the Native American Powwow" explains:
Perhaps because their participants seem to be having fun instead of playing to the white stereotype of Indian stoicism.... the contemporary intertribal powwow, an increasingly popular vernacular dance expression among Native Americans, has not been given much attention by scholars, even though it has become one of the most common articulations of "Indianness" among Indians today (p. 137).
This study is an effort to begin to increase the body of scholarship by placing powwows in theoretical and interpretive context.
Of the powwow scholarship available, most materials note the celebratory nature of powwows and the importance of powwows in contemporary Native life (Heth, 1992a; Heth, 1992b; Parfit, 1994). For example, Toelken (1991), Toelken and Brown (1987) and West (1992) clearly establish the role of powwow in ethnic identity as a focal point for articulation and transmission of American Indian values and history, an occasion for learning the cultural context important to clothing, dance, foodways and customs of powwows. Toelken and Brown (1987) in particular also note that for off-reservation people, "urban Indians" and non-Indian participants, powwows affirm ties to the community. Development of community ties and levels of civic engagement are reciprocally related (Viswanath et al, 2000; the field research for which was conducted in central Ohio) and civic engagement in support of traditional ways is valued by tradition-oriented community members in resistance to a history of forced assimilation (Lake, 1991; Morris and Wander, 1990; Shaver, 1998). Affirmation of community ties and articulation of traditional values are especially important within the context of contemporary American Indian life, allowing seemingly incompatible elements of the non-Indian world, such as automobiles and competition, are incorporated in ways that are consistent with Indian values (Toelken, 1991; Toelken and Brown, 1987). Although this cultural process is potentially troublesome to spectators insistent upon judging "authenticity," it is highly consistent with the understanding of tradition as a concept of the past which is always constructed in the present (Burke, 1954/1965; Handler and Linnekin, 1984; Lake, 1991; Stern and Cicala, 1991).
The problem arises when intensification of features (Toelken, 1991) results in judgments of authenticity based on a bounded concept of tradition. The general public's conceptualization of American Indians is largely about past images, and powwows tend to be construed as survivals from the past, representative of dying ways (Bird, 1996; P. Deloria, 1998; Dippie, 1982; Stedman, 1982). However, American Indians tend to recognize powwows as part of their dynamic culture, even if they are not always so pleased with the increasing influences from the dominant culture (Axtell and Aragon, 1997; Snake, 1996; Vennum, 1982; Young Bear and Theisz, 1994). Of course, there is always a risk of reinforcing the stereotypical romanticized conception of "Indian" among those who lack the ability to make appropriate distinctions. But in general, with the presence of an emcee, informational programs, and occasional humorous performances, in addition to the intertribal dancing, a powwow can be a successful educational tool in this regard if visitors are open to these cues.
Powwows are primarily Indian events for Indian people, but the presence of members of the general public, as welcomed touristic spectators and potential participants, is actively encouraged. As such, the intertribal powwows of central Ohio are an example of self-assured co-cultural communication (Orbe, 1996; Orbe, 1998) that uses Burke's (1954/1965) concept of "perspective by incongruity" to break down established ideological orientations and replace them with new ones, and thus also a new ideology (see Dow, 1994; Fitch & Mandziuk, 1997; Rosteck & Left, 1989). Thus, powwows are an important opportunity to negotiate the relationship between American Indian peoples and non-American Indians. That this re-negotiation is on American Indian terms is an important rhetorical move (Morris and Wander, 1990). Indeed, attending a powwow may be the only opportunity for contact with contemporary American Indian life that is readily available to most non-Indians in Ohio. Attendance offers a unique experience in cross-cultural communication, most specifically illustrated by powwow dance.
METHODOLOGICAL FRAMEWORK: REFLEXIVITY AND ETHNOGRAPHIC FIELDWORK
The primary materials of this study have come from participant-observation at powwows and other American Indian events and gatherings, primarily in the Central Ohio area. I write from a unique and valuable position; my position and participation within the American Indian community of Central Ohio far predates my academic interest.(2) Throughout my involvement with Central Ohio powwows, beginning in May 1989 when I attended my first powwow shortly after my husband and I moved into the Central Ohio area, I have been welcomed into the local American Indian community as the wife of a respected American Indian community leader. Over the years, I have developed my own relationships with community members as I have supported activism within the community (both in the Central Ohio area and nationally), have welcomed gatherings in our home, and have participated fully in powwows and other gatherings.
Community members who know me or know of me know that I have formally studied powwows several times during my academic career, and I intend to continue to contribute to the scholarship of powwows in the future. My "double consciousness" (Abrahams, 1986) perspective on powwows and other activities is always fore-grounded; I am always participant and observer. In pursuing the academic study which has led to the present article,(3) the wealth of informal information learned through personal involvement was followed up with eighteen months of systematic participant observation of powwows and other Indian events, intensive academic research, surveys of powwow visitors which I designed and distributed for Ohio Center for Native American Affairs (OCNAA) and formal interviews with American Indian community leaders, powwow organizers, community members at various levels of involvement and powwow …
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Publication information: Article title: Intertribal Dance and Cross Cultural Communication: Traditional Powwows in Ohio. Contributors: Sanchez, Victoria E. - Author. Journal title: Communication Studies. Volume: 52. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2001. Page number: 51. © 2008 Central States Communication Association. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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