A powwow is a celebration and a gathering that allows Native Americans to show off and share their heritage and culture. The songs and dances are based on stories and traditions that have been followed and passed on for hundreds of years. It is a time to come together, have a good time and heal the soul.
According to the American Indian Heritage Foundation, powwow is the white man’s word for the Indian word “pau-wau,” which originally referred to a healing ceremony conducted by the spiritual or religious leaders of various tribes. They were held to celebrate a successful hunt and to to thank the spirits for a bountiful harvest. They also prepared warriors for battle.
According to Sheridan Travel and Tourism Executive Director Shawn Parker, powwows are an important part of Native American heritage and that heritage is deeply rooted in Sheridan’s history and the history of the Bighorn Mountain region. Events like powwows are culturally significant. In an ever homogenizing society, it is important that Sheridan supports efforts to keep those traditions alive.
“It’s good to be able to display the tribes that neighbor each other,” Northern Cheyenne tribal member Benji Headswift said. “To be able to explain the differences between how they dance and celebrate and how we dance and celebrate, and help decipher a little bit of the powwow meaning.”
According to Richard West, director of the National Museum of the American Indian in an article for North Carolina State University, “One of the things the federal government did in the dog days of adverse Indian policy was to separate Indian communities from one another. Powwows are a powerful contemporary device for Indians to get together. In that respect, powwows are a potent cultural and social connector among contemporary Indian communities.”
Each tribe has its own interpretation of powwows. Powwows are used for war party celebrations upon successful return from battle. Other powwows are used to honor loved ones, returning veterans or new dancers to the circle.
According to Indian Education for All — Your Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Powwows, developed by Murton McCluskey Ed.D. and published by the Montana Office of Public Instruction, most religious ceremonies, such as naming ceremonies, are no longer part of the powwows. They are now more often conducted in the privacy of a family. Honoring ceremonies and ceremonies for a dropped eagle feather remain today.
“The only thing that brings two tribes together is that drum,” said Truman Jefferson Ropes Good, a Crow leader. “The beat and the rhythm, both tribes understand that and they dance to it, but in their own different style.”
According to West, the drum is one of the most important things to the Native American culture, because the culture centers around the drum. If there were no drum or singers, there would be no powwow. The drum is the heartbeat of the Earth Mother, and drumming brings everyone back into balance. Through dancing, singing and listening the people around the drum can connect with spirits.
The fast dance for the Crow is called the Chicken Dance. The Northern Cheyenne counterpart is called the Fancy Dance. The Crows dance as a large group and the Northern Cheyenne dance in groups of two or three so individuals can display their talent. The Crows are audibly louder with bells on their legs and feet, while the Northern Cheyenne are visually louder with bright, flashy outfits.
According to the American Indian Heritage Foundation, powwow ceremonies were conducted to celebrate the circle of life and all things living and spiritual. Ancient stories handed down through generations are acted out, keeping history alive.
“The origins of a dance might come from a vision, might come from a story, might come from lineage that has come down through the family histories,” Headswift said.
According to Ropes Good, the Crow’s Chicken Dance is derived from the mating dance of the sage grouse.
“It was a time of mating,” Ropes Good explained. “The rooster was out there dancing, going around in circles, watching the female and then he stopped and vibrated. Traditionally, that’s how the dance started. The bustle on our outfits was copied from the prairie chicken. The feathers come up on the bird’s head when it is dancing, which inspired our headdresses. We are the only ones that use the bustle, bells and the porcupine roach.”
The traditional clothing that their ancestors wore every day inspired the outfits of the Northern Cheyenne. The modern generations took the traditional styles, colors and leggings from the past and added long fringed capes, multiple bustles and bright colors to accentuate the pageantry of the dances for competition.
“The women’s dress is a traditional dress, what they wear every day,” Headswift said. “A great-grandmother might have worn a dress for her wedding and passed it on. That is why the dancer wears it today.”
Each tribe has a different approach to song at the powwows.
According to West, songs are started with a lead line sung by the head singer to let the drummers and dancers know which song is coming up. A drummer will then take up the lead line and the rest of the drummers will join in. At that time, the dancers join in. Loud beats during songs are sometimes called “Honor Beats” and are meant for the dancers to honor the drum. In northern tribes these beats are generally during the verses and in southern tribes they are between verses.
“There are words that say it’s a good day today that we are here together dancing,” Ropes Good said. “Each song has a different tempo. There are words that portray how they feel. The words are celebratory and they are in Crow.”
The Northern Cheyenne reserve songs with words for memorial songs, honor songs, veterans songs, flag songs and victory songs. According to Headswift, language is appropriate for those times because the songs require a certain meaning. Those songs are not used in the powwow atmosphere.
“The sounds that we make with original style singing is representative of the old way of how they used to sing,” Headswift said. “The majority of the sounds we make with our songs are considered vocables, sounds without meaning. It’s the way that sound comes out and it moves you.”
According to Butch Jellis, an adopted member of the Crow Tribe, different tribes are invited every year to powwow in Sheridan. Arapahoe, Shoshone and Blackfoot have come as well to celebrate their cultures. The Crow powwow in Sheridan because this is Crow country, Crow land, Jellis said.
“Powwow keeps the tradition going and you see the young dancers getting better and better,” Jellis said. “I’ve been watching some of these dancers since they were tiny tots and now they are champion dancers. Some of the guys that are drumming and singing, same thing. Now they are major singers in competition. Also, nobody parades better than the Crow. That’s when they strike out single file, Crow style.”