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A Pow Wow Primer

Story by
Nancy Joseph
J.C. Allen-Tackett dances at the UW Winter Pow Wow.

J.C. Allen-Tackett dances at the UW Winter Pow Wow.  Media credit: Karen Orders

The drum beat is strong and steady. Dancers in colorful regalia move slowly across the dance floor. Women grasp the edges of their shawls, spreading them wide to display stunning designs. Men adorned with eagle feathers step in rhythm, their feathers swaying with each movement. The smell of fried bread fills the air. 

At a pow wow, the senses are always engaged. 

Each year the UW holds two pow wows celebrating Native American cultures. The more informal event is in January; the larger Spring Pow Wow in April is a huge affair, attracting thousands to Hec Edmundson Pavilion. The events are hosted by First Nations@UW, a student group.

There’s also a course about pow wow, offered by American Indian Studies in conjunction with First Nations@UW. The course covers the history and significance of pow wow and serves as an internship for students organizing the annual events.

“It was important for the class to be tied directly to implementation of pow wow,” says Tom Colonnese, professor of American Indian studies, who teaches the course. “You can learn about pow wow from class and movies, but like most things, you don’t really get it without being there yourself. It’s a visceral experience. You feel the drums as well as hear the drums. You need to experience pow wow to really learn about it.”

Colonnese explains that the term “pow wow” is believed to come from the Algonquian word ‘pauau,’ or gathering. The English who witnessed ‘pauau’ heard it as ‘pow wow’ and the term stuck. But this historical note, like most aspects of pow wow, is subject to debate.

“Many elements of the history of pow wow—where things come from, what they mean—are controversial,” says Colonnese. “If you ask different dancers about a dance, you’re likely to get a different answer from each person. That’s because there is no such thing as ‘Indian.’ It’s a European construction. It’s an attempt to put one name over 500 different cultures. And each one has different beliefs about the dances.” 

At the Winter Pow Wow, Stacey Goodbuffalo danced in a colorful shawl of butterflies.

At the Winter Pow Wow, Stacey Goodbuffalo danced in a colorful shawl of butterflies. Media credit: Karen Orders

Most agree, however, that the earliest dances celebrated two things: the natural world and successful hunts. They were usually danced in the spring, when large groups reunited after separating into smaller hunting bands for the winter. Dances celebrating success in warfare were introduced later, in the 1600s. “One of the earliest of these was the ‘grass dance,’” says Colonnese. “These dances were done on prairies with tall grass that they had to beat down to create a dance floor.”

Pow wow has continued to evolve, with ‘fancy dancing’—the fastest and most colorful style of dance—joining the repertoire in the 1800s. “Some say that ‘fancy dancing’ grew out of Indian dancing in Wild West shows, where the Indians were asked to make the dances and outfits fancier,” says Colonnese. “Others argue that it was the Indian dancers themselves who wanted to change. I suspect it was a bit of both. We continue to see change.”

Although pow wows now attract huge audiences, there was a time when the celebrations were outlawed by the U.S. government as part of a larger movement to assimilate Native Americans. Pow wows returned after World War I (or World War II, depending on whom you ask), became more popular in the 1960s as Americans embraced ethnic identity, and continue to grow in popularity. Last year, the UW’s three-day Spring Pow Wow attracted 
4,000 visitors. 

Detail of a traditional bustle of eagle feathers, worn by a male dancer.

Detail of a traditional bustle of eagle feathers, worn by a male dancer. Media credit: Karen Orders

“A lot of Indian students, if you ask them about the first time they were on the UW campus, will say it was at a pow wow,” says Colonnese. “And a lot of their parents consider it important that the UW has this respect for Indian culture. The pow wow is, among other things, a way for us to recruit Native students.” 

Mona Daniels, a social work major, grew up going to pow wows. “My father brought me and my siblings to pow wows every summer in Idaho, Washington, and Montana,” she recalls. “I started dancing when I was five years old. One of my older sisters was a fancy dancer, and that was the kind of dance that I wanted to do. I got my Indian name, Lil’ Yellow Bird, from a pow wow. I had a little yellow shawl and people said when I danced I looked like a little yellow bird jumping around the dance floor.”

Daniels and Jim La Roche, an anthropology major, are serving as teaching assistants for the pow wow class, which both have taken. They also hold leadership roles with First Nations@UW.

La Roche attended pow wows as a child but had no idea what went into planning one. Organizing a pow wow, he says, has been a revelation. “When you’re working it, you realize what a huge effort it is,” he says. “The Spring Pow Wow is a year-long effort, starting with overall planning and then getting into details. There is a cultural side but also a business side to the event, and I’ve enjoyed that.” 

Tom Colonnese (left) and Mona Daniels share a moment with Winter Pow Wow emcee Dave Browneagle in the UW's HUB Ballroom.

Tom Colonnese (left) and Mona Daniels share a moment with Winter Pow Wow emcee Dave Browneagle in the UW's HUB Ballroom. Media credit: Karen Orders

When Daniels and La Roche took the pow wow course, it was a small class mostly attended by Native American students. It now attracts 150 students—with more on the waiting list—from diverse backgrounds. “This may be the only chance for some of these students to interact with Native peoples,” says La Roche. “We hope they will understand us a little more as a result. We’re one of the smallest populations on campus, but we’re very visible. We’re not going to be forgotten.” Adds Colonnese, “I suspect that the students learn more from their Indian classmates than from all my lectures and course materials.”

Just as the class is open to all students, the pow wow welcomes the whole community. Daniels and La Roche want people to know that it is not a Native-only event. “Come, buy a piece of fried bread, and stay a few hours,” says La Roche. “It’s a great celebration.”

For those who need more convincing, consider Daniels’ touching description of what pow wow means to her: “Pow wows are time for me to heal myself. When I hear the drums and watch the dancers, I automatically feel happier. They are a time for me to reunite with old friends and family and make new friends. I was always told that when I dance, I am not only dancing for myself; I am dancing for my elders and those who can no longer dance, for loved ones who have passed away into the other world, and for my family. Pow wow is a part of my heart’s joy.”