The word “powwow” carries a multitude of connotations. As a colloquial term for a meeting or gathering, it has been stripped of cultural context. But among Native American communities, “powwow” refers to any ceremonial gathering with traditional music and dances. They happen around the world and throughout the year. They take a variety of forms, from national competitions to private events on reservations, from spectacles at casinos to fundraisers at high schools.
Some American Indians cherish the powwow tradition, while others see it as spoiled by commercialization and non-Native spectatorship. It can be difficult to discuss powwow as a whole because of its broad meaning and the layers of misrepresentation and stereotypes surrounding it in popular culture. Essentially, powwow is an adaptive, contemporary tradition that reflects tribal and intertribal history, culture, and community values.
This exhibition explores the history of powwow and the songs and dances that comprise them. It provides an overview of the multiple meanings powwow takes on in American Indian communities. It weaves together insights from two dancers: Dennis Zotigh, a powwow historian and cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian, and Gregory Gomez, the president of the Indigenous Institute of the Americas.
Powwow reflects real, lived Indian experience, so it does not exist outside of time, in a distant and rural past. It is just as urban, national, and international as the communities it serves. While this exhibition identifies many common elements, there is no one true powwow. Every powwow that carries importance for the people who attend is equally authentic and valuable.
Elizabeth Hoffmeyer is an anthropology student at Smith College. She interned at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in fall 2015.