music is life, music is breath, music is us

The History and Structure of the Pow-Wow

(Note: My cultural makeup is diverse, and in this post, I wanted to talk about a key component to my Cherokee heritage (or really any Native tribe from the United States), that being the inter-tribal event of the Pow-Wow. As such, I use the term(s) “Indian” or “American Indian” in this post at times simply because, among our people, that is the terminology we use to identify ourselves. Enjoy-Derek)

The Pow-Wow originates historically in mobile medicine shows in the 1820’s which eventually contained American Indian dancers to attract potential customers. Around the 1880’s, Indians themselves began creating these shows, and soon after the term “Pow-Wow” became associated with Native American dancing. There were always dancing gatherings among Natives prior to European contact; however such events were closed to outsiders (i.e. not in the tribe or a part of another tribe). As the years progressed, eventually leading into what is now known as the modern-day Pow-Wow, the events became open to the public to enjoy. It is important to state, however, that the government viewed religious dancing suspiciously until 1933 when John Collier legalized religious dancing. This led to an ultimate shift in the Pow-Wow, as it eventually became less an entertainment show and more about the community (specifically post-World War Two homecoming celebrations were planned for veterans of Native descent). As time progressed, so did the spread of the Pow-Wow events, leading to the present day where Pow-Wows are conducted all over the United States.

When discussing the Pow-Wow, it is important to distinguish between the Northern and Southern practices, as well as understand their origins. The song form of the Northern song style follows the song structure (with “c” meaning cadence and “*” meaning honor beats) __A_c///___B___***c/__***(possible cadence)__B__c__/ (then repeat to A section). The song form in the Southern style is structurally different, as it follows the form __A__c//___B__c__**/*_____B_c____/ (then repeat to A section). Both forms follow what scholars call “incomplete repetition,” which originates in the Heluska War Dance of the Omaha Nation. This leads to the greater point that the Heluska people are where Pow-Wow music and dance originated. What caused the style to spread and become what is now known universally as the Pow-Wow musical form was a visit of delegates from the Dakota people. Upon the Dakota purchasing the rights to the songs, and modifying them with their own language, more tribes eventually purchased the rights and Heluska dance slowly began to spread in popularity among Indians.

Further continuing with the analysis of Northern and Southern song form, it is imperative to speak of the actual vocal styling of the respective forms. In both forms, the pentatonic scale (diatonic scale that deletes the 4th and 7th scale degree) is utilized, as well as vocables and native languages for libretto. Furthermore, the vocal texture of both styles is monophonic (unison) or heterophonic (same melody line with different variations among vocalists). This is where the similarities end however, as the vocal approaches and vocal ranges differ in Northern and Southern styles. In the Northern style, the voice is higher pitched and piercing, specifically sung in chest voice, whereas the Southern style is more relaxed and lower pitched. Another difference between Northern and Southern styles is not only in the vocal approach, but the actual vocal range of the singers. In scientific pitch notation, the Northern vocal range is G3-E5 and the Southern vocal range is E3-A4. The explanation for these ranges exists in the techniques utilized, as logically Northern singers’ higher pitched vocal technique produces a higher vocal range and the Southern singers’ lower pitched vocal technique produces a lower vocal range.

There are numerous forms of songs within the Pow-Wow competitions. Such songs include dances with origins in “old, tribal-specific warrior societies” like Traditional Dances; “Fancy” War Dances which originated in Wild West shows; and intertribal songs such as the Northern Crow Hop and Southern Horse Trot. When looking at the dances, it is essential to understand the reason behind certain movements and the cultural significance they hold. At the simplest level, footwork is an essential component to the song, both for points and for communication of cultural concepts. There are numerous beliefs regarding the reasons for the footwork used in Pow-Wow dances. One view holds that the footwork pays respect to the animals (or “four-leggeds”) who gave Indians the knowledge of how to dance (such a theory makes sense in some respect as the Crow Hop Dance in fact mimics the motion of a Crow). Another view states that the dancing/footwork of Natives in Pow-Wow settings is a type of prayer, specifically endowed on Indians by the Creator. No matter what the belief is regarding the origin of the dance, the conclusion can be made that the dance steps are sacred to the songs of the Pow-Wow. Take for instance the Women’s Traditional Dance, practiced in the Great Lakes, Oklahoma, and Northern Plains Regions. The women who dance never allow their feet to totally leave the ground, a symbolic representation of Native women’s connection to Mother Earth. This most likely explains why proper dancing technique is a major component to high scores in Pow-Wow competitions (if there is over or under stepping in dances there may be disqualification), as dance is an integral component to the culture of American Indians.

The final topic of discussion with regards to the Pow-Wow is how the dance categories relate to the regalia used by the dancers. The regalia used by the dancers is entirely based on the dance type chosen, as well as the personal preference of the dancer in question. Such dance types include (these examples come from Northern Pow-Wows): Traditional Dance, Fancy Dance, Grass Dance, and Jingle Dress Dance. The types of regalia involved in these dances can include porcupine/deer hair roaches, crow bustles, spinners for feathers, rockers for feathers, and dance sticks. No matter what the specific piece of regalia is, it maintains certain significance for the Native dancers who wear it. This significance is most poignantly stated by Ojibwe Dancer George Martin, saying “all these things that we use were given to us by them…our brothers and sisters-our four-legged brothers.” There-in lies the true significance of the regalia worn by Indian dancers, it is a representation of their connection to the Earth and its creatures. This beautiful display of interconnectedness is strongly protected by the Pow-Wow Dancers for their future generations to partake in. As a Cherokee Indian, this display of true connection gives me hope for the future of not only those I share blood with, but every human being.

(Source: “Heartbeat of the People” by Tara Browner)


2 responses

  1. Anpetu lila wast’e koda! (‘Very good day to you friend’ in Lakota) Very much enjoyed this piece from you and value that you stopped by to visit my site, Thunderbird Public Relations on WordPress and “liked” the Joanne Shenandoah announcement. We would value your presence over there, on Facebook and wherever else we cross paths online. Working with Joanne and Project Peace on Earth brings out some fabulous ethnomusic for you. 🙂 Best wishes, Toska ake,
    Shelley Bluejay Pierce

    August 28, 2012 at 8:22 pm

  2. Osiyo! (hello in Tsalagi)

    I appreciate you stopping by my site. I am pleased that you enjoyed this piece about an important event in our shared American Indian culture. I look forward to seeing more comments in the future.


    August 28, 2012 at 8:52 pm

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