Ancient Traditions, Modern Constructions: Innovation, Continuity, and Spirituality on the Powwow Trail

By Kelley, Dennis F. | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Ancient Traditions, Modern Constructions: Innovation, Continuity, and Spirituality on the Powwow Trail


Kelley, Dennis F., Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: In contemporary Indian Country, the majority of people who identify as "Indian" fall into the "urban" category: away from traditional lands and communities, in cities and towns wherein the opportunities to live one's identity as Native can be restricted, and even more so for American Indian religious practice and activity.

This article will explore a possible theoretical model for discussing the religious nature of urban Indians, using aspects of the contemporary powwow as exemplary, and suggest ways in which the discourse on Native American religious practices can inform the larger discussion of religion in general by implying a comparative direction between urban Indians and other religious actors in American secular society.

Key Words: American Indian, Performance, Identity, Ethnicity, Spirituality, Dance, Religion, Powwow, Embodiment, Modernity

One of the principal problems for urban Indians is how to remain Indian; in spite of their various difficulties, they do remain Indian by keeping together through a network of communications, by getting together for kinds of celebrations and powwows. There's greater unity among Indians today. The young urban Indian particularly wants to understand himself in traditional terms.

-Leland Orchard (Kiowa)1

When I'm feeling depressed, or if I'm having a hard time, the main thing that will get me out of that is a pow-wow. I don't care what is going on in my life; if I'm at a pow-wow I'm happy.

-Norma Rendon (Oglala)2

Perhaps the most visible manifestation of American Indian traditions to non-Indians, the public-access intertribal powwow, serves as a unique and complex manifestation of identity negotiation, spirituality, and social networking for the Indian participants. Both the result of and a venue for contemporary Native religious, social, and political continuity within the confines of modernity, the powwow and its associated activities serves as a key feature in the struggle to maintain traditional orientations in a country that continues to challenge that very expression. This is perhaps most significant among the urbanized Indian populations in the US, providing many Natives in urban centers with one of the few outlets for traditional Native expression.

In spite of the presence of excellent works such as Powwow, edited by Clyde Ellis, Luke Lassiter, and Gary Dunham, and Tara Browner's Heartbeat of the People: Music and Dance of the Northern Pow-wow, scholars of religion have given the powwow phenomenon little notice, due in part to the relative invisibility of indigenous traditions in the Academy, but also due to the controversial nature of the claim that the powwow represents an aspect of Native sacred traditions. This article is an attempt to suggest a direction for the discourse on contemporary American Indian religious identity using the intertribal powwow as an anchor, providing insight into the historical and social significance of the religious nature of the Native participation in pan-tribal traditions. "Pan-Indian" practices, those that treat tribal-specific traditions liberally and opt for common-theme activities germane to Native American communities generally, often form the core of culturally-specific spirituality for both urbanized Indian communities (whether residing in off-reservation lands, multicultural metropolitan areas, or both), and land-based communities for whom assimilation has effected the level of traditional (tribally-specific) participation.

The significance of the powwow to Religious Studies lies in the fact that this form exists as an essential aspect of the religious lives of many American Indians, especially those who can be termed "urban Indians." The discussion here serves as the theoretical direction of a larger research project on the spirituality of urbanized Indian communities, which explores ways in which the study of contemporary Indigenous religions can provide insight into the discussion regarding the religious/secular divide.

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