Welcome to the Pow-wow!

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For those of you who know me well, you know I am part Cherokee and grew up learning Native American traditions from my grandmother. Sadly, she died almost a year ago at age 80 having fought a valiant struggle with lung-cancer. We treasured the time we had with her and the last Native American event I was able to take her to was a Pow-wow at the Great Circle Mound near where I live in the center of Licking County. The site is a 2,000 year old Native American earthwork mound built by the Hopewell Civilization and having the Pow-wow at such a sacred site was a great honor to the members of our Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio who organized the Pow-wow. My grandmother and I have participated in these events when I was younger and you can see a picture of me dressed in Native garb above, but this time we just attended as visitors since my grandmother needed so much assistance. My boyfriend took some video of the drum-circle showing some of the dancers in the background which I uploaded to another site. Here is an article from our local newspaper describing the event:

Click here for the Link

Every Pow-wow is different but there are a few common aspects which are important rituals so I’ll describe some of them here:

The Drum Circle: Gathered around a large, traditional Native drum, a group of men led by an elder pound out the drumbeat to which we dance. The drummers are usually men because most Native American tribes are patriarchal with only a couple exceptions, my Cherokee tribe and the Navajo of the desert southwest. Among the Cherokee, the women hold dominance, hold the land and property rights, and hold all the important decision-making positions. Perhaps this is why the Cherokee have always had a tradition of being the most peaceful of all the Native tribes. However, at a Pow-wow, all the different tribes come together and the drum-circle is nearly always made up of men. The drumbeat symbolizes the heartbeat of the Great Spirit which brought us forth on the Earth.

The Dance: Around a central point marked by either a totem, a bon-fire, or other symbolic focal-point, the dancers circle in a slow procession to the beat of the sacred drum. There are many different dances, but usually at least one foot makes contact with the sacred earth in either a tapping step or a supportive step for every beat of the drum. Beyond that nearly every individual has their own stylization based on a common dance-type. We enter a deep communion with the heartbeat of the drum and some even enter a trance-state. It is a deeply personal and meaningful connection to our spirituality.

The Welcoming Line: It is important to respect and honor your guests. As a Pow-wow can go on for days and newcomers are always showing up, the welcoming line is periodically set up by the organizers of the event to show respect to their guests and visitors, be they participants or onlookers. A receiving line of all the hosts draws new arrivals into the inner circle of the event welcoming them with a big hug and pat on the back. Touching each other is an important part of feeling communion when we gather from many different tribes, clans, or walks of life.

Native dress: At any Pow-wow you will see many of us dress in our traditional clothing, especially the dancers. Sometimes we dress in full Native regalia according to our tribe or our clan affiliation within the tribe, from feathered head-dress to beaded moccasins and everything in-between! But many times we just wear simpler outfits: jeans and a tee-shirt embroidered with a tribal design. Sometimes I wear just a headband and Native jewelry with a couple brightly-colored feathers laced into my hair. Every tribe has different beadwork patterns to differentiate themselves and they are always very colorful! Feathers from different bird species have different meanings too.

The Gifting: The Native American host is always a generous provider to his guests. At every gathering a blanket is spread and an array of gifts are presented. The hosts of the event first call up the elders of each clan to receive first choice of the gift selection. Then one by one, other designated groups are called up to the gift-line until finally the children are turned loose to claim the remaining treasures. The gifts can range from hand-made native crafts to boxes of pencils or other every-day useful items, but everybody gets something.

Sacred moments: Each event is blessed, but some dances and rituals are especially sacred to the elders. These events are announced, but in the noise and confusion many outsiders do not hear the announcements and usually a member of the organizing council will go around politely asking observers not to take pictures, videos or do other intrusive activities while a sacred moment transpires. It is simply a matter of respect. I forgot to mention this to David when he began video-ing one of the ceremonies over my shoulder and that is why he didn’t get to record much. He and several others were asked to stop shooting their cameras during that particular dance. But that was my fault for not paying attention.

Indian food: Modern Indian Pow-wows are usually welcoming of all comers, Native and non-Native alike, so thousands can show up! The Native American tradition of feeding all their guests has of necessity had to be modified for the modern Pow-wow. In other words… food ain’t free! It is plentiful however and there is a large variety offered for sale in a giant food tent. You can usually find Indian chilis, Indian taco’s, fry-bread, and other common Native staples along with more traditional American food, but the custom of ‘pigging-out’ at a Pow-wow is alive and well!

Trading: Invariably you will find all sorts of Indian-crafts for sale at numerous vender’s tents set up all around the perimeter of the event. Beads, jewelry, art, and Native-crafts of every variety can be found at a Pow-wow. I play the Native American 6-hole flute so I always look for the flutes whenever I go. They are made of cedar mostly, which has the softest and most resonent sound, but more beautifully-figured hardwood flutes with a brighter sound can be found too, and I have a collection of both which I’ve purchased from Native craftsmen from Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico to the Cherokee reservations of North Carolina where our tribal lands were originally located. Some Indian flautists amplify their flutes and run the signal through an echo-processor so the sound is reminiscent of the rich, atmospheric sound of a flute being played in a box-canyon. You can hear the sound on many recordings and CD’s available by Native flautists like Coyote Old Man, and R. Carlos Nakai. I was trained to play by a Pueblo Indian in Santa Fe named Sky Redhawk, and I go back to visit him whenever David and I travel out west. But at most any Pow-wow you can hear an Indian flautist performing.

I hope some of you have read this through to the end because we Native Americans love to share our culture with everyone and we are a very proud people, even though many of us are now of mixed blood. The Cherokee women of the lower Appalachians commonly married Scottish men who emigrated and settled in our mountains because it reminded them so much of the Scottish highlands they left behind. Many Scottish traditions are similar to native tradition insofar as clan denominations, clan-markers: Tartans for the Scots and beadwork for the Native Americans for example. A strong oral tradition of story-telling is common to both nations also as well as sharing a tradition for being fierce warriors. You can tell by my Scottish last name that I’m descended from one of those Scots-Cherokee pairings. I hope you all get to experience an Indian Pow-wow someday! I’ve enjoyed them all my life! O-si-yo!
woodland beth

(c) February 19th, 2013 Bethany Ariel Frasier

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2 thoughts on “Welcome to the Pow-wow!

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  2. Bethany,
    This was very interesting. Knowing you means I am expanding my horizons. Your a born instructor.


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