Ah. Another year, another national boxing match over whether or not it’s OK to co-opt Native American culture and imagery (short answer: It’s not). While most of this year’s action occurred in the other Washington (with continued furor over the Redskins football mascot) and down in Oklahoma (where the governor’s daughter posing in a native headdress damn near caused the Flaming Lips to break up), in our neck of the woods there were—as always—a few incidents of tribal garb worn by some very white people at Sasquatch!, and there’s no telling what kind of nonsense the Paradiso Festival will produce.
But there is good news amid all this chicanery. You, as soon as next weekend, can both revel in the awesomeness that is American Indian culture and respect it at the same time. How, you ask? By going to a powwow! Summer is powwow season, and it’s already well underway across Washington. Seattle Weekly got together with Pendleton, Oregon’s Jim Roberts, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and the founder of powwowtime.com, to give newbies a rundown on what powwows are all about and how they can make the most of their visit.
Powwows aren’t religious. In most Native American cultures, everything is considered sacred. However, powwows themselves generally aren’t spiritual ceremonies. “Powwows are more or less a secular tradition,” Roberts says. “It’s not like you’re coming to a sun dance.” Sacred gatherings like sun dances aren’t open to the public, but folks should not feel as if they’re crashing the party when they attend a powwow. “Anyone coming to a powwow is welcome to be there,” Roberts says.
Powwows are celebrations. Many powwows are held to honor a specific event or group. For example, on June 20–22 the Muckleshoot Tribe will host a powwow honoring veterans, and in July a powwow encouraging sobriety. Beyond that, they are a time for friends and family to get together and enjoy each other’s company. Powwows “are a good doorway to see what we do when we relax,” Roberts says. “It’s a social gathering for us.”
Powwows are competitions. Although there are “traditional” powwows that don’t include prize money, most powwows feature men and women competing for purses that can get quite hefty at large gatherings. There are many different kinds of dances, but the grass dance and fancy dance tend to be the most popular. Still, each style has its own allure, and are almost always accompanied by live drummers and singers. Not to be missed are the grand entries of the powwows, when all the dancers parade into the arena for a spectacular show. “Grand entries tend to be fairly majestic,” Roberts says.
Powwows as they exist now are relatively new. While Native American cultures go back millennia, Roberts says powwows as they exist today began to take form within the last 100 years, and incorporate traditions from tribes across the country. The dances, for example, are borrowed from tribes from Canada to Oklahoma. “Seattle to Florida, you’ll pretty much see the same format,” Roberts says.
Don’t call traditional outfits “costumes.” The traditional garb worn by dancers and drummers is a “costume” to the same extent that what a soldier wears when he goes off to war is a “costume.” “Regalia” is the preferred term of many Native Americans.
Be a good guest. While everyone is welcome to a powwow, there are basic courtesies to show the hosts, just as if you were a guest in someone’s home. Follow customs, stand when the crowd is asked to stand, and don’t put feathers on your head and dance around. “If [visitors] start to put on some of the regalia themselves, it’s like a black person seeing a white person put on minstrel [wear],” Roberts says. “You wouldn’t go around Mexican people yelling ‘Arriba! Arriba!’ ” Roberts says that if you go to the same powwow long enough and get to know people, you may find yourself invited to participate in some dances, but in that respect patience is a virtue.
Eat lots of frybread. Frybread is the staple of the powwow diet. While often you have the option to make it a full-on “Indian Taco” with ground beef and lettuce, for my money a piece of frybread with a healthy dose of honey and powdered sugar is about as good as it gets.
A Couple Nearby Powwows (by no means comprehensive!)
Muckleshoot Veteran’s Powwow, June 20–22, Muckleshoot Powwow Grounds, Auburn. Free. muckleshoot.nsn.us/community/muckleshoot-powwow.aspx
Stillaguamish Tribe’s Festival of the River and Powwow, Aug. 9–10, River Meadows County Park, Arlington. Free. festivaloftheriver.com