Powwow

By Clyde Ellis; Luke Eric Lassiter et al. | Go to book overview

LORETTA FOWLER


4.
Local Contexts of Powwow Ritual

The powwow is possibly the most important community ritual on the Plains. Viewing the powwow in its ritual and symbolic dimensions reveals the wide range of ways the powwow affects individuals and communities and allows them to act on their social and cultural world. Here I will draw on a large literature on ritual symbolism (see Kertzer 1988, 1–14, for a summary) to explore the powwow historically and ethnographically as a ritual process. As culturally and socially standardized and repetitive action wrapped in a web of symbolism, ritual – having both cognitive and emotional effect – builds individuals’ confidence in themselves, in others, and in their local tribal community.

The multivocality and condensation properties of powwow symbols help explain how tribal social and symbolic forms coexist with those common to several tribes and, although stimulated by intertribal developments or diffusions, how they can help revitalize local institutions or can work to precipitate innovations compatible with those traditions. Powwows are expressions not merely of tribal identity but, rather, of a wide range of identities. They are a vehicle not only for creating unity or resource distribution but also for prompting political action, including struggles over leadership and challenges to the status quo (see Fowler 2002, 326–28). Powwow ritual both creates a context for the expression of modern identities, values, and interpretations of the past and is a means by which social cooperation and emotional bonding occur. The powwow is used by participants to effect sociocultural change and to challenge the status quo, for in the context of powwow ritual, change is made culturally and socially acceptable.

Powwows are held at least annually in tribal communities, and these gatherings attract the entire tribal membership (enrolled and nonenrolled, local resident and nonresident), regardless of economic circumstances, religious affiliation, or political alliances. A powwow provides individuals and families with a large audience as they try to establish identity or introduce change. Interpreting just how these rituals do cultural and social work requires that they be understood in local contexts and as products of local histories. This chapter

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