Best of Freshman Writing

Volume 17

Table of Contents

Christopher Young 

Bradley Neighoff 

Chelsea Hafner 

Chelsea Hartzman 

Madelyn Koch 

Kristy Offenback 

Cody Bressler 

Emily Brown 

Ebony Ford 

Steve Hamel 

Daniel MacIntosh 

Chris Watts 

Matt McClure 

Kyley Mickle 

Shatisha Diggs 

Taylor Bury 

Joanna Evans 

Alyssa Gradus 

Cindy MacIntosh 

Abbey Miklitsch

Lisa Morrison

Hailey Schuchart

John Ritenour

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Copyright © 2012 The Pennsylvania State University

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Last updateded July 2, 2012.

Alyssa M. Gradus
English 15
PSU – York

How to Put on a Powwow:
From Beginning to End

Waking up on the floor of a small motor home, crammed next to their siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles; this is how it starts. Native Americans have been traveling all over the United States from powwow to powwow. They reunite with friends and family members of other Native American tribes and cultures. Tribes from all over North America from Lumbee to Cherokee, Iroquois to Aztec, Powhatan to Blackfoot, gather as one nation at the powwow site, wherever that may be for the weekend. Putting together this Native American festival can be difficult and stressful, but teaching others of the forgotten Native American culture is worth it.

In 1492, arrogant Christopher Columbus mistakenly discovered the New World; racism, ethnocentrism, and manifest destiny soon took over and wiped out more than ninety-five percent of Native American population. (Sutton 1)

Native American culture diminished, and Native American identity became misunderstood. In modern days, one of the only ways in which Native Americans can practice religion and keep their culture alive is through Powwows. Powwows are many things: a gathering, a community, a festival, a society, and an educational event. In the words of the Penn State University Park Native American Committee,

Powwows are American Indian celebrations of community and spirituality, featuring American Indian drum and dance as well as American Indian vendors offering American Indian arts and crafts items.

    Those who wish to plan a powwow must first decide when and where to hold it. A date, time and location must be selected. Because Powwows are an outdoor event, they take place during comfortable weather. In the Northern half of the United States, powwows usually take place during warmer temperatures, anytime from May to September. In the South, powwow season runs even in the winter time since there is good weather all year round. Powwows are located on vast open land, such as on a farm or at a recreational park. Each powwow lasts about five to six hours each day for three days, mostly on weekends, but depending on how big the powwow is, it can last up to a week long. When choosing the date, time, and location of the powwow one must see if that time will conflict with other powwows. If that were to happen, the powwow will be unsuccessful with fewer dancers and visitors showing up.
    Along with choosing dates, whoever puts on a powwow will have to choose which drum groups and head dancers he or she has at the powwow. Without drums, there is no powwow. At least three or more drum groups must be invited. If the drum groups accept the invitation, a contract stating there will be a powwow must be created and signed. Then there must be a Head Lady and Head Male Dancer chosen. The Head Dancers lead all of the other dancers into grand entry. As for the other dancers, they will come as they please.
    Food vendors, jewelry vendors, and craft vendors are chosen next. There must be at least two American Indian licensed food vendors. The craft and jewelry vendors must be chosen wisely in order to prevent competition in sales. The Master of Ceremonies (MC) needs to be chosen. This should be a man with great knowledge of Native American culture across all nations. During the powwow he will narrate what is going on. Finally, the last to be chosen is the Arena Director. He is the one who will organize the dancing circle and make sure all dancers are dressed correctly.
    The setting up of a powwow consists of a long, never ending, and hardworking day. A day or two before the Native American gathering goes public native people arrive at the powwow ground. The crafts people set up their tents filled with tables full of beautiful artifacts: spears, bones, moccasins, animal skins, and buffalo horns. Jewelers have tents filled with man-made beaded earrings and hand carved stones used for jewelry. There is considerable turquoise jewelry, stone, and wampum. Other vendors set up their pottery, animal carvings, indigenous people paintings, and dream catchers.
    Next, someone must make sure the food vendors and the MC are prepared. Food vendors will have the longest job ahead cleaning every single part of their food trailer until it’s sanitary and completely spotless in order to pass health inspection the next day. While all vendors are setting up, the MC makes sure the audio systems work. The MC also has to practice speaking into the microphone to make sure his voice comes clear through the big black speakers scattered around the dance circle. The night before the opening of the powwow, everyone obtains a good night’s sleep to sustain energy for the next day.
    The food venders wake up the earliest each day to prepare the food, start up the fires and start the pots of water boiling. They prepare chicken, quail, buffalo, pork, beef and other meats. On the menu, there will most likely be Indian tacos, corn soup, turtle soup, corn bread, chicken and rice, fish, fried pickles, chili, fried bread, beans, squash and a never ending recipe of buffalo. Buffalo burgers, buffalo ribs, buffalo jerky, buffalo wrap and more buffalo. A couple hours later, around ten o’clock, the native venders wake up, open their tents, and go grab some coffee and breakfast from the food venders and wait for the powwow to begin.
    The drum groups and dancers arrive around eleven o’clock and start preparing for the long day ahead. The Drums have reserved seating along the dance circle. They set up their drums but don’t play them until Grand Entry at noon. Meanwhile, the dancers are dressing in their regalia, applying their makeup, painting their faces, and braiding their hair. There are many types of native dancers—Fancy, Jingle, Shawl, Grass, Traditional, etc.—therefore, each regalia is unique to the dancer. Feathers can be placed on top of hair, stuck into hair, or hanging from braids.
    The most exciting step of the powwow process is opening the gate and inviting the public in. When the clock strikes twelve, the gates will finally open. People from all over the world join the Native Americans in the Native heritage celebration. Native Americans are welcoming and joyful to see the interest and excitement in other people as they experience Native American culture. Hundreds of guests sit around the “circle of life” as they watch the dancers enter. The drummers start to drum for the Grand Entry—the first dance of the powwow. At the moment, the sinew-tied buffalo hide drum is struck; the beat of the drum becomes the heartbeat of the powwow.
    The last step of the powwow is closing time. During the powwow, Native Americans sell food and other goods, play drums, sing, dance, tell stories, and share the spirit the creator has given them. No later than six o’clock, the powwow closes to the public, and the Native American people stop working and start to have fun. They gather around the dance circle and begin a trade blanket—trading goods while storytelling. They eat, laugh, and discuss how the powwow went. Most commonly, a forty-nine will begin. The forty-nine is when drummers drum and everyone including dancers, vendors, and cooks dance around the drum all night. This is great for those who are unable to dance during the powwow.
    A powwow is not a weekend party or a hangout, not just a show for spectators to watch Indians dress up in colorful “costumes” and dance around in a circle for them. Spectators become amazed and enjoy themselves while thinking the whole concept of a powwow is an act, as if one could pay to see it on stage in a play. That is not the case. Powwows are a way of life, a place for Native Americans to keep the spirits of their ancestors alive. Native Americans don’t know any life better than traveling to powwows. They are born and raised on the powwow trail and that’s what makes Native Americans unique. Native Americans travel the country to dance, drum, sing, and live the life they know and love. It reminds them of a time when they roamed this great land freely, and when they were the only ones on the land. By putting on powwows, Native American culture will survive.

Works Cited

Pennsylvania State University. “New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional American
      Indian Powwow—About Powwow.” New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional
      American Indian Powwow—Homepage
. Pennsylvania State University, Fall 2011.
      Web. 11 Oct. 2011.

Sutton, Mark Q. An Introduction to Native North America. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson,
      2008. Print.

Alyssa Gradus's essay appears here with her express written permission and cannot be reproduced in any manner or fashion without her express written permission.