A modern pow-wow is a specific type of event where both Native American and non-Native American people meet to dance, sing, socialize, and honor American Indian culture. There is generally a dancing competition, often with significant prize money awarded. Pow-wows vary in length from one day session of 5 to 6 hours to three days. Major pow-wows or pow-wows called for a special occasion can be up to one week long.
The term also has been used to describe any gathering of Native Americans of any tribe, and as such is occasionally heard in older Western movies. The word has also been used to refer to a meeting, especially a meeting of powerful people such as officers in the military. However, such use can also be viewed as disrespectful to Native culture.
Planning for a pow-wow generally begins months, perhaps even a year, in advance of the event by a group of people usually referred to as a pow-wow committee. Pow wows may be sponsored by a tribal organization, by an American Indian community within an urban area, a Native American Studies program or American Indian club on a college or university campus, a gas station, a beer store, or any other organization that can provide startup funds, insurance, and volunteer workers.
The head staff of a pow-wow are the people who run the event on the day or days it actually occurs. They are generally hired by the pow-wow committee several months in advance, as the quality of the head staff can have an impact on attendance. To be chosen as part of the head staff is an honor, showing respect for the person's skills or dedication.
Music for pow-wow dance competition and other activities is provided by a "Drum," a group of performers who play a large, specially designed drum and sing traditional songs. The number of members of a drum group may vary, but is usually at least four people, and can be far more. Some members of the drum group may wear traditional regalia and dance as well as drum, other times drummers simply wear street clothing. Drums usually rotate the duty of providing songs for the dancers, each taking a turn at the direction of the pow-wow management.
The Host Drum of the pow-wow is a drum group primarily responsible for providing music for the dancers to dance to. At an Intertribal pow-wow, two or more drums are hired to be the host drums. In some places there is a Host Northern Drum and a Host Southern Drum. Depending on the size of the pow-wow and the region where it is held, there may be many drums, representing nearly every tribe or community attending the pow-wow. At some pow-wows, the drums are judged on the quality of their performances, with prize money awarded to the winners. Each drum has a Lead Singer who runs his or her drum and leads the singers while singing. Host drums are responsible for singing the songs at the beginning and end of a pow-wow session, generally a starting song, the grand entry song, a flag song, and a veterans or victory song to start the pow-wow, and a flag song, retreat song and closing song to end the pow-wow. Additionally, if a pow-wow has gourd dancing, the Southern Host Drum is often the drum that sings all the gourd songs, though another drum can perform them. The host drums are often called upon to sing special songs during the pow-wow.
At outdoor pow-wows, this circle is often covered by either a committee-built arbor or tent, or each group, particularly the MC and the drums, will provide their own. While most of the time, a tent provides shelter from the sun, rain can also plague outdoor events. It is particularly important to protect the drums used by the drum groups, as they are sensitive to temperature changes and, if it rains, they cannot get wet. Most vendors provide their own tents or shelters at an outdoor pow-wow.
A pow-wow session begins with the Grand Entry and, in most cases, a prayer. The Eagle Staff leads the Grand Entry, followed by flags, then the dancers, while one of the host drums sings an opening song. This event is sacred in nature, some pow-wows do not allow filming or photography during this time, though others allow it.
If military veterans or active duty soldiers are present, they often carry the flags and eagle staffs. They are followed by the head dancers, then the remaining dancers usually enter the arena in a specific order: Men's Traditional, Men's Grass Dance, Men's Fancy, Women's Traditional, Women's Jingle, and Women's Fancy. Teens and small children then follow in the same order. Following the Grand Entry, the MC will invite a respected member of the community to give an invocation. The host drum that did not sing the Grand Entry song will then sing a Flag Song, followed by a Victory or Veterans' Song, during which the flags and staffs are posted at the MC's table.
Most of the various types of dances performed at a pow-wow are descended from the dances of the Plains tribes of Canada and the United States. Besides those for the opening and closing of a pow-wow session, the most common is the intertribal, where a drum will sing a song and anyone who wants to can come and dance. Similar dances are the round dance; crow hop when performed by a northern drum or a horse stealing song by a southern drum; there is also "double beat", "sneakup" and, for Women's Traditional and Jingle, "sidestep". Each of these songs have a different step to be used during them, but are open for dancers of any style.
In addition to the open dances, contest dances for a particular style and age group are often held, with the top winners receiving a cash prize. To compete in a contest, the dancer must be in regalia appropriate for the competition. Larger powwows have more specific categories. The dance categories vary somewhat by region, but general categories are as follows:
Normal intertribal dancing is an individual activity, but there are also couples and group dances. Couples dances include the two step and owl dance. In a two step each couple follows the lead of the head dancers, forming a line behind them, whereas in an owl dance each couple dances alone. Group dances include the Snake and Buffalo dance, where the group dances to mimic the motions of a snake in the beginning of the dance, then change to mimic the actions of a herd of buffalo.
At pow-wows where there is a large Southern Plains community in the area, the Gourd Dance is often included before the start of the pow-wow sessions. The gourd dance originated with the Kiowa tribe, whence it spread, and is a society dance for veterans and their families. Unlike other dances, the gourd dance is normally performed with the drum in the center of the dance arena, not on the side.
There may be many drums at a powwow, especially weekend or week long ones, but each powwow features a host drum which is accorded great respect and the most authority. The members of drum groups are often family, extended family, or friends. Groups are then often named for families, geographic locations, tribal societies, or more colorful names. Many groups display their names on jackets, caps, vehicles, and chairs. Traditionally only men would drum and women would sit behind the men singing high harmonies. Beginning in the mid 1970s, women began drumming with men and seconding, or singing, an octave higher, the song. Today, there are mixed-gender and all-female drum groups.
The supplies a drum group carries include the drum, rawhide headed, a cloth bag for padded drum sticks, the drum stand, folding chairs for sitting, and, in some cases, a public address system. The drum head, stand, microphone stands, and PA box are often decorated with paintings or eagle feathers, fur, flags, and strips of colored cloth.
Readily noticeable in performances are the "hard beats" used to indicate sections of the song. The "traditional method" consists of a pronounced strike by all singers every other beat. These may appear in the first or second line of a song, the end of a section, before the repetition of a song. A cluster of three hard beats (on consecutive beats) may be used at the end of a series of hard beats, while a few beats in the first line of a song indicate performer enthusiasm. In the "Hot Five" method five beats are used, with the first hard beat four beats before the second, after which the beats alternate.
While the drum is central to pow-wows, "the drum only helps them keep beat. Dancers key on the melody of the song. Rhythms, tones, pitch all help create their 'moves'." (p.85) Note that Bill Runs Above did not mention the lyrics of the songs, and while they are no doubt important, most lyrics of most songs employ vocables, syllable sounds such as "ya", "hey", and "loi" (p.86). This is particularly evident in intertribal songs, such as the AIM Song, which cannot be biased towards a certain language.
The song structure consists of four pushups, singing the chorus and verse through four times. In each chorus the melody is introduced or led off by the lead singer whose is then seconded by another singer who begins to vary the melody before the end of the leader's first line. They are then joined by the entire chorus for the rest of the pushup. Three down strokes or hard beats mark the end of the chorus and beginning of the verse, and during these drummers while alter their dancing such as by hopping low like fancy dancers. An increase in tempo and volume on the last five beats marks the end of the final verse. The dancing stops on the final beat and then a tail, or coda, finishes the song with a shortened chorus.
Singing differs by region in that a high falsetto produced deep in one's throat is used in the north while in the south a lower range is used. "To the unfamiliar listener, Indian singing sounds exotic, different, and difficult to comprehend," and the contrast in the quality or timbre of voice used in traditional Indian and European musics may have much to do with that difficulty. However, "to the trained ear, melodies flow, ascend and descend" while dancers react to changes in the structure of the melody and the song. Boye Ladd says, "if you give me a stink song, I'll dance stink. If you give me good music, I'll give you a great show," implying that one can appreciate the music through the dancing, which is readily appreciated by everyone.
Talented singers also sing off-the-beat, placing the words between the drum beats rather than on them, which "is probably the non-Indian's greatest obstacle in trying to learn Indian songs.