Regalia traditions meet contemporary innovations

Rob Capriccioso
3/24/09
 

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – When Faye Lone, a member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, first started participating in pow wows more than 30 years ago, her regalia, she recalls, felt extraordinarily heavy.

“Back then, everything was original beadwork,” she said. “It was about 25 to 35 pounds by the time I got everything on.”

On top of the intricate beading, her outfit consisted of rings, hairpieces, a yoke, a belt and moccasins. She sometimes also wore cuffs, straps, beaded vests and a corded fringe shawl.

It’s all about having fun and not being afraid.”

– Faye Lone, a member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians

It wasn’t always easy to be a fancy dancer in such weighty materials; and it usually took a lot of time to make a traditional outfit – sometimes months, or even years. Plus, it was often difficult for many reservation residents to come up with the money to get the costly materials needed to make performance gear they could be proud of.

Having been a designer of traditional regalia for dozens of years, Lone is at the forefront of experimenting with new ways to make pow wow outfits that help make up for some of the past challenges. She finds herself part of a growing group of Indian artists who are aiming to use new technology, fabrics and other innovations to make outfits that not only stand the test of time, but are also amenable to the lifestyles of today’s Native performers.

Lone said the heft of regalia is often a source of pride for many pow wow participants, but she doesn’t believe that’s any reason not to explore a variety of new ways to make performance clothing even more fun to dance in.

One of the most unique elements of Lone’s innovations is a self-taught process of making beads by using a computerized embroidery machine. She first bought the machine to help her produce intricate quilt patterns, but she soon discovered she could manipulate its programs to make beads out of thread. And these thread beads are lighter than the real thing, cost less, and can be made rapidly with little effort

Want to make your own regalia?

Fancy fabrics and updated designs aren’t the only changes in the world of pow wow regalia. As recently as the 1990s, Indian youth had to rely on well-versed elders to teach them the styles of their tribe and to understand their meaning. The Internet, however, has made the information easier to get and more widely accessible. Some elders have hailed newer ways of disseminating information, while others feel that it has decreased the need for one-on-one learning.

Faye Lone, a regalia designer and member of the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, said it doesn’t have to be an either
or situation.

“The first place to go to learn about making regalia is to your tribal elders, or to pow wow participants from your tribe. You will find that many people are more than willing to talk with you, explain meanings, and give you ideas on local places to look for materials.”

Once the basics of dress are discussed, Lone said the Internet can be a place to further ponder ideas, and to learn about new techniques that might make building one’s regalia easier or more affordable.

Some places to explore on the Web include www.powwows.com, http://powwowfabrics.com and www.crazycrow.com. Tribal Web sites also have information listing cultural contacts to ask for advice.


Lone said younger dancers, for whom she often designs, are especially pleased by the process.

“It gets them interested in design and thinking about how to make their outfits in unique ways. It’s all about having fun and not being afraid.”

Lone’s daughter, Dayyagohatay, is part of the next generation of pow wow dancers – a generation that seems keen on experimenting with new techniques.

Dayyagohatay, for instance, regularly makes contemporary shawl dance outfits using non-traditional m aterials and fabrics with bright colors, and even neon and prism tape. For many years, the use of such tape was limited to male outfits, but younger females are finding that it works just as well for them.

Many younger pow wow participants have found a lifesaver in appliqué, since the technique allows a variety of fabrics to be applied quickly, sometimes even with hot glue, rather than stitching. Appliqué has made it more common for fancier fabrics to be used in designs, including velvet and satin.

“Everything’s different – everything’s changing, which is great,” Lone said. “I think it’s just opening up a whole new world of style and design for all Indians.”

She said even very traditional styles, like jingle dresses, have recently gotten updated looks, including the addition of neon colors. Grass Dance outfits have also evolved, with many now featuring piles of brightly colored yarns. In the past, such outfits tended to be plain and usually made in earth tones.

Some traditional pow wow enthusiasts have not always taken kindly to the changes. They feel the essence and spirit of pow wow regalia may be lost by not creating outfits in the old ways, taught by elders.

“It’s a little hard to take for the older ones,” Lone said. “As a fabric artist, it’s easy for me to say that I love many of the changes. But as a longhouse person, I can feel the other part of it too. We still use our outfits in our ceremonies. There is a sacred aspect to them.”

Lone, while a champion of innovative outfit designs, said that some Natives worry the outfit advances have turned some pow wows into glorified fashion shows. She said judges at some events often have no idea of what style elements make up certain genres and styles.

“If you’re not dressed to flash, you sometimes just don’t get the attention,” Lone said. “Even the traditional buckskin ladies are starting to put mirrors and rhinestones on their pow wow bags.”

She said there will come a point when regalia designs keep evolving and everyone will have to contemplate how far they want to take their creative license. The idea of proceeding with caution is not new, as many traditionalists have been saying for years that pow wows have almost become Disney-fied – in terms of cost, lack of attention to sacred ceremonies, and the removal of intimacy.

Still, the evolution of pow wow clothing does not have to mean only focusing on the addition of attention-getting bling. Some newer style updates include using cotton, rather than wool blends in order to add comfort and breathability. Other designs that once required tight bodices have also been updated with drawstrings or Velcro.

“If some of the changes get more people involved because they’re more comfortable, I think that’s a good thing,” Lone said.

And one thing about pow wow regalia that hasn’t changed, even with the many new ways of doing things: The importance of sharing. Lone said it’s crucial for pow wow participants to share the knowledge of making outfits with others in order to build a sense of community and to keep traditions alive.

Sometimes the sharing becomes literal. Lone said she once met a young lady at a pow wow who needed a shawl to dance in. So, Lone shared hers, as well as her whole outfit at the time. In return, the girl gave her a black velvet jingle dress when she got back home.

“It’s the right thing to do sometimes,” Lone said. “When you have the opportunity to pass on a piece of your regalia, it’s a beautiful thing – a memory in the making.”

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