Dancing the Circle: An Introduction to Powwows

By Harvey, Karen D. | Social Education, May-June 2002 | Go to article overview

Dancing the Circle: An Introduction to Powwows


Harvey, Karen D., Social Education


There is no single word that describes the powwow. Powwow is Indian. Although nowadays there is an emphasis on contest dancing, it is still the same as when I grew up. The powwow is a place of healing, praying, dancing, and singing. A place to join others in pride and respect.... When you're feeling sad, come to a powwow and you'll be happy again. There will be a feeling you didn't have when you first came there.--Tony Brown, in Powwow Country. (1)

The term powwow, Algonquin in origin, meant a person of power, perhaps a "medicine man," or a gathering for healing ceremonies. (2) (The Algonquin family of American Indian languages were spoken from Labrador to Carolina and westward to the Great Plains). Powwow has now come to mean an organized gathering of tribal people where friendships are renewed and traditional activities such as drumming, singing, dancing, and feasting are celebrated. Powwows are held in communities all over North America, usually during the summer. They may be small or large, last for a few hours or a few days, be held indoors and outdoors, on reservations, campgrounds, athletic fields, and in school gymnasiums. There are contest (competitive) powwows and traditional (non-competitive) powwows. They may be organized by individual families, tribal councils or other tribal organizations, community groups, museums, and Native student groups. One can see regional and tribal differences in powwow dance, regalia, food, and ceremony in powwows held in different parts of the continent. Powwows usually have a commercial side, with trade in arts and crafts and concessions of all sorts.

The following lesson (pages 6-9), "Everything the Indian Does Is In a Circle," is a version of one of eleven lessons in a unit of study about powwows and American Indian culture that I helped develop for middle school students in the Denver Public Schools. (3) (This lesson, taught early in the unit, is intended to "set the stage;" it is not a comprehensive presentation about powwows.) The larger unit was designed to develop students' understanding of powwows as more than dance contests, elaborate regalia, of the sale of fry bread--they are a contemporary symbol of Indian philosophy and a reinforcement of Indian culture, tribal cohesion, and individual identity. The unit provides a cultural context for the music, dance, and ceremony of the powwow, so that learning about (and possibly attending) a powwow can be a meaningful, as well as exuberant, experience for students.

General Guidelines

While powwows can be spectacular, a spectator with little knowledge of American Indian traditions would miss much of the meaning of the regalia, ceremony, music, and dance. Before attempting to teach the lesson, teachers should complete some basic reading, talk with American Indian people, and if possible, attend a powwow. An uninformed teacher could do more harm than good (without intending to) by perpetuating cultural or historical inaccuracies or stereotypes instead of presenting accurate content.

Government policies such as forced attendance at boarding schools, forced removal and land takeover, and relocation from reservations to urban areas, have had long-term effects on many Indian people. Some missionary efforts have been corrosive of American Indian culture and society. Also, inter-tribal and inter-racial marriages have made genealogy and the question "who is a Native American" complex. For these reasons, if there are Indian students in classes that are studying the powwow, teachers are cautioned as follows:

* Do not attempt to identify students as American Indian based upon their names or physical features (factors such as intermarriage and assimilation have made it impossible to accurately identify American Indians by their physical features or their names);

* Do not assume that students wish to be publicly identified as Indian (many Indian people do not like to be singled-out, and some, for a variety of reasons, do not identify with their Indian heritage, hold traditional values, or practice traditional ways);

* Do not expect Indian children to be familiar with and participate in their tribal histories and cultural traditions (there are many Indian children, particularly in urban areas, who are not familiar with their own history and traditions and many adults are not familiar with the history and traditions of tribes other than their own). …

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