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Communities gather at a Virginia powwow, 2007.
Souvenirs from the 2001 Denver March Pow-wow. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution

As powwows are cultural gatherings, commercialization of the events is a hotly debated issue within the community. Originally, vendors attended powwows only to sell shoes, beads, and other materials to dancers. Today, vendors carry all kinds of souvenirs for tourists, and larger companies carrying cheap, imported goods threaten to wipe out mom-and-pop sellers in the powwow circuit.

Some argue that dance competitions run counter to the friendship and community-building purpose of powwows, especially when they offer cash prizes and attract gambling. As the number of powwows across the country multiplies, event organizers need more prize money and honorariums to attract popular dancers and drum groups.

Yet financial concerns are not new to powwows. They are not solely a feature of modern powwows, but rather a reality of American Indian life. Since the earliest Wild West shows, organizers have often encouraged non-Natives to attend in order to generate revenue. Craftsmen and performers can then be reimbursed for their travels and can earn a living.

Powwows have always existed as a hybrid form of tradition, fulfilling spiritual, cultural, and financial needs.

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