“Let’s meet up at 10 for a pow wow in the boardroom.” A pow wow, a meeting, an assembly of some kind. Is that really all a pow wow is nowadays? Is it disrespectful to use that word outside of its original context?
In everyday vernacular, a pow wow may just be a get-together (according to Wikipedia, it’s actually quite commonly used in place of ‘conference’ in the US military, of all places) – but in the Native American tradition, a pow wow means a whole lot more. The word is derived from the word powwaw in the Narrangansett language, which once meant “spiritual leader.” Though these gatherings are a kind of homecoming for tribes people, in many cases, pow wows are simply social gatherings were Native and non-Native guests enjoy food, activities, ceremonies & even some competitions for cash. This Winnebago pow wow is known in the immediate surroundings as a rather entertaining and modern form of the gathering.
Costumes and dancing and prize money, oh my!
Here on the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk Tribe) reservation, it’s an annual four-day extravaganza, where Native Americans and visitors get down in all manner of cultural explorations. Tasty tid bits include bison nachos, traditional corn soup, funnel cakes, fry bread, kennel corn and flavored lemonades. Not the healthiest of grub, but most festivals are tummy-building parties anyway, right?
Vendors, mostly of some Native descent, trek over from all corners of the States to sell their jewels, handmade cedarwood boxes, artwork and clothing.
Everything centers around the dance circle where the organizers and emcee are based. Drum circles are scattered across the perimeter of the grassy dance space, and flags are raised everyday to mark the beginning of the ceremony. Nearly an entire afternoon is dedicated to honoring veterans from every war – they start from the War of 1866 and read every single name.
At 12 noon, the audience is treated to a “Grand Entrance,” where each of the competing dancers bust a move into the pow wow circle, single file, and in full dress.
I’m Dance Dance Dance Dance Dancin’ Machine!
We’ll start with the mens because, coincidentally, they were nearly the only dancers I was able to check out.
The Northern dancers are typically aggressive, moving in step with the drum, telling the story of a battle or tracking a prey as they dance. They sometimes perform a “sneak-up” move, crouching before the attack. Some people say this dance style originated with the Omaha tribe in Nebraska – right where I’m sitting today, in the home of Dr. Sudah!
Southern Straight dancers also tell a story, but use slower more graceful movements. Their outfit consists of front and back knee-length wool broadcloth aprons and a back “tail” which hangs to the ground.
The traditional Grass Dancers wear long flowing fringes with beautiful beadwork on their vests and pants with yarn sewn into the legs. I’m a huge fan of the traditional look, but the real crowd-pleaser is the modern Fancy Dance. Men in this category are fully decked out in double “bustles,” circular arrangements of feathers worn on the chest and waist. The dance is quick-paced and full of exciting movements, especially when the dummers try to trick dancers with changes in beat.
At this year’s pow wow, we got to see quite a few Intertribal Dances as well as the Fish Dance, one of the oldest of the tribe’s, which actually originated in Wisconsin, along the lakes and rivers. Another standout was the Swan Dance, a traditional dance for young virgin women to mark the coming of the Spring Equinox.
Dancers in men’s, women’s, boy’s and girl’s categories are awarded prizes and monies for their participation. Apparently, the last three years have seen unfair distribution of competition monies, so there were fewer participants this year than last year. Hopefully they can get it together and keep the crowds coming.
Throughout the four days, you’ll find all sorts of unexpected events, like the crowning of a senior and junior Miss Pow Wow, morning run/walk and a clown show. It’s not all ceremony and drumming these days!
A Fond Farewell
Overall, the vibe at the Pow Wow is not very different from an American BBQ or a Hawaiian pot luck. There’s a strong family vibe, with hot little teenagers struttin’ their stuff for each other in the background, and elders can be seen chillin’ in comfy chairs wherever there’s a spot of shade. The host of the event emphasizes cultural understanding and made a big point to welcome all the visitors from the area and beyond who were just learning about Winnebago culture.
Sudah and I met and chatted with many colleagues, patients and friends at the event, as well as community leaders like Sarah Snake of the Winnebago tribe whose strength, sincerity and charm are immediately felt in conversation.
My main mission on this trip is threefold: 1. To interview clinic care givers and write an article on diabetes prevention with the HoChunks, 2. To offer yoga classes to patients and massage to workers as service, 3. To learn about providing services for native populations so I can bring it home proper one day. This pow wow was a much appreciated cultural cherry atop what is already a very rewarding trip –another rare experience I’m truly grateful for!