Native American powwows are colorful, festive reunions.
“They are a celebration of who we are through dance and music,” said Lawrence Baker, who has served as the master of ceremonies for the Denver March Powwow, an annual tradition that kicks off the spring and summer powwow season in communities throughout the United States and Canada.
“It’s a celebration of life. We get together and challenge ourselves in different styles of singing and dance,” Baker said.
There’s a friendly, competitive atmosphere at powwows.
“We match wits and show off our new outfits. It’s exuberance through culture and dance.”
Baker is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. He’s also a member of southern California’s Rincon San Luiseño Band of Mission Indians.
Baker’s Indian names are Four Winds and Three Feathers.
It’s his job during powwows to welcome everyone and explain the significance of powwows and the rich traditions that come to life during dances and rituals.
Baker describes powwows as “coming home to see family again.”
The great news for non-indigenous people is that Native Americans welcome respectful, curious people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds to become part of the family at powwows. One key bit of advice from Baker: ask first before photographing an indigenous person and never touch the traditional native garb that people wear at powwows.
The outfits – known as regalia – are highly valuable family heirlooms, often invested with deep meaning.
“Some of the regalia might have belonged to their grandfather. It might come apart if you touch it,” Baker said. “We compare it to going to church in your Sunday best. For us, we live in our regular clothes. But for powwows, we put on our regalia.”
Baker points out that regalia are not costumes like people wear for Halloween.
“We’re not dressing up to be something we are not,” Baker said. “We are ourselves all the time.”
Baker and the powwow organizers invite everyone to attend the Denver March Powwow. To help non-native people understand the festivities, Baker explains what powwows are and why they are such important gatherings.
What is a powwow?
Powwows are celebrations of life and festive gatherings to show off Native American culture and dance.
“We’re carrying on our ancestors’ traditions,” Baker said.
“Powwows are a time to gather, not to fight and not to be warring tribes. We see all of the people we haven’t seen in a while.”
He compares them to other traditional gatherings throughout the west like “mountain men rendezvous” or stock shows or rodeos, where cowboys go from event to event, competing and celebrating.
What is the significance of powwow regalia?
Dance regalia is elaborate and colorful and varies depending on the style of dance.
Male dancers wear headdresses made with porcupine and deer hair woven together with eagle feathers worn on top. Bone breastplates, eagle feather bustles, beaded armbands, chokers made of animal bones and anklets of angora fur with large bells are some of the finishing touches.
What is the dancing like at a powwow?
Traditional dancing originally was a form of storytelling, where warriors acted out deeds committed during a battle or a hunt.
American Indian dancing is a highly individualized activity, pursued in a group, with each dancer moving independently to the beat of the drum. Dance styles are derived from traditional dances of various tribes, but are not specific to any tribe — and creativity is encouraged.
Is the word ‘powwow’ a Native American term? Should I use the word powwow?
The word “powwow” comes from the Narragansett word powwaw, meaning “spiritual leader.” White cavalry soldiers used the term to describe meetings of Native Americans, and at times, the word “powwow” was used derogatorily. Despite the past usage of the word, Baker said most indigenous people use the word “powwow,” and therefore, it’s not considered culturally insensitive to describe Native American gatherings as powwows.
How many powwows are there?
Powwows are very common and some people travel from one to another.
“We go to a powwow every weekend during the summer,” Baker said. “People go on a circuit of powwows. We have the Denver Powwow, then we go up in the Dakotas, Montana and Canada. Then, when it gets to be winter, we head to California.
“The Denver March Powwow is the kickoff in the spring. It marks the changing of seasons. Everybody gets together in the middle of the U.S. You have people come from California, Arizona, Florida, Washington State, North Dakota and Canada. We’ve been cooped up all winter and this is our first chance to dance,” Baker said.
When is the Denver March Powwow?
The Denver March Powwow takes place March 17-19 and brings more than 1,500 dancers from nearly 100 tribes to the Denver Coliseum for three days of celebration. People come from 38 states and three Canadian provinces.
What happens during the Denver Powwow?
Each session of Denver March Powwow begins with the colorful Grand Entry. It kicks off with the HeartBeat drum group singing the committee’s song, “A Living Hoop.” Following them is an eagle staff and American Indian nation and other flags.
Along with dancing, what else happens at the Denver March Powwow?
The Powwow includes singing, dancing, storytelling, food and art.
I hear powwows are similar to large reunions. Is that true?
Yes. Baker said powwows feel a lot like a big reunion.
“Powwows are a good time to come back together as family, to visit about those we’ve lost and who has been born and who has moved,” Baker said.
Do people shop for arts and crafts at powwows?
Yes. Baker always encourages anyone attending a powwow to support Native American artists and entrepreneurs who bring their creations to sell at powwows.
“I always encourage people to buy beautiful items in Denver like turquoise jewelry. Plan ahead for graduations, births and special occasions,” Baker said.
He personally enjoys wearing “Indian bling” to powwows.
At the Denver March Powwow, there are more than 170 booths selling a variety of Native American artworks and products. Attendees can shop for jewelry, blankets, pottery and beadwork from some of the nation’s most skilled Indian craftsman. Or they can buy an authentic Cheyenne arrow or a Sioux Tomahawk.
There’s also authentic Native American food like fry bread and Indian tacos.
I hear some Native American traditions are private. Is that true and why is it OK for non-native people to come to powwows?
It’s absolutely correct that some indigenous traditions are special and private. Non-native people are not allowed to attend those events.
“We don’t do holy things at powwows like getting a name, getting feathered or getting accepted into a clan because those are sacred events,” Baker said.
The Denver Powwow, on other hand, is intentionally open to indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. Native Americans gather and want to show their culture off to non-indigenous people.
“In Denver, the more the merrier,” Baker said. “I tell everyone that if I can reach three or four white people and get them interested in our culture and our way of life and they really find out about indigenous people, then I have done my job.”
With his deep, soothing voice, Baker serves as a master of ceremonies at powwows from Florida to California and Canada. When he’s not on the powwow circuit, Baker is Director of Tribal Housing Services for the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota.
Baker also does play by play calls for TV broadcasts of boys’ basketball.
Is there storytelling at powwows?
Yes. At the top of every hour, speakers share legends and legacies of America’s indigenous people.
Storytelling is a big part of Baker’s job too.
“I love telling stories about my grandpa. I was raised with him until I was about 16,” Baker said. “He told me a lot of stuff that I now share with others. I cherished moments fixing fences with him. On a good day of fixing fences, you can get 10 miles done. My grandpa and I would be talking the whole time and we’d only get about two miles done.
“At the Denver Coliseum during the Denver March Powwow, we do a lot of talking too,” Baker said.
There’s a lot of humor. Baker says white people might assume that indigenous people would spend a lot of time being angry about losses they’ve suffered.
“You’d think we’d be grumpy. We don’t trust the U.S. government since they broke treaties, tried to kill us and said ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.’”
In fact, Baker said many indigenous people are tremendously resilient and have positive outlooks. Powwows are positive, life-affirming celebrations.
“We’re still here,” Baker said. “We’re joking. We’re having a good time and we’re laughing at ourselves….We forgive you, but we don’t forget.”
Are powwows healing for participants and observers?
Yes. The dancing and rhythmic drumming is meant to be healing.
“The beat of the drum bounces off of you and you can let go of whatever you’re holding onto. Maybe someone is sick or you can’t pay the bills. You let it go and dance. And in that moment, you find some clarity. We find these drums to be very healing,” Baker said.
Along with dancing, are there other traditions during powwows?
Yes, Native Americans have deep traditions of giving gifts to honor relatives or other special people. Giving gifts is part of powwows too.
For instance, princesses who serve as ambassadors at various powwows might give gifts of money, food or regalia to other dancers.
And some dancers or the masters of ceremonies might give away blankets.
“The blankets date back to the time of buffalo robes. When the buffalo were no more, women made blankets. It’s symbolic of giving a robe, warmth and strength,” Baker said.
I’ve heard powwows include traditional dances like the Jingle Dress Dance and the Chicken Dance. What are these?
The Jingle Dress Dance is a popular competition at powwows. It has its roots in older ceremonies, but is now a contemporary dance.
Young women compete in dresses adorned with twisted pieces of metal that jingle like bells. Fun fact from Baker: Indigenous people used to use the tin tops from snuff or chewing tobacco containers to make the jingles. Now they buy metal pieces and twist them to make jingle dresses.
The chicken dance emulates prairie chickens as they perform mating rituals.
“They are dancing to catch a mate’s eye. They dance boastfully and shuffle their feathers,” Baker said.
The chicken dance also is rooted in private ceremonial rituals. But for powwows, dancers bring a lightness to the chicken dance. Baker likes to tease audience members, for instance, warning them that the chicken dancers might steal their hearts if they’re not careful.
“These roosters are powerful. Don’t look them in the eye.”