Wiley Bros./Miles City, MT/Courtesy Library of Congress
Great Omaha Pow-Wow dance of the Cheyennes in Montana, circa. 1891

Every Step They Take: Staying Connected for Generations Through Dance

Rodney Harwood

When people dance, they stay connected: One earth, one mother, moving to the heartbeat of the drum.

It is said that the word “pow wow,” comes from an Algonquian word pau wau, meaning, “he dreams.”

The people have kept the dream alive since creation. There is no exact record, but the pow wow is thought to have begun with the Pawnee Nation as a religious ceremony filled with personal and religious significance.

It is said that the modern day pow wow evolved from the Grass Dance Societies that formed during the early 1800s. With the coming of the reservation system, the people were forced to adapt it without sacrificing meaning. There was a time when tribal customs and religious ceremonies were outlawed by the government, but the grass dance was one of the few celebrations allowed. It became a way to maintain tribal customs that were slowly vanishing.

Many of the Plains tribes formed alliances. The songs, dances and ceremonies by each nation were exchanged, laying the groundwork for the “inter-tribal pow wow.”

What began as a ceremony giving thanks for a successful hunt or harvest, or preparation for upcoming battle or reenactment of a brave deed, moved forward with the same sense of cultural and personal pride. Onetime enemies or cultures not known to one another began to come together as one.

At least 67 tribes have been historically associated with the modern-day state of Oklahoma. It is said that the first inter-tribal pow wow in Oklahoma was the Ponca Powwow in northern Indian Territory around 1879. The tribes united. They traveled from as far as 100 miles by horseback to dance, to sing, to remember the old ways and bring them into a new time. Nations at the first Ponca dance included the Omaha, Ponca, Kaw, Osage, Pawnee and Otoe-Missouria. The men’s warrior dances (helushka) were showcased in the early Ponca Powwows as well.

Despite the forced changes all around them, these events inspired cultural and personal pride in American Indians. It allowed the tribes, families and individuals to come together for feasting, to hear their languages spoken, to sing and dance. The people upheld tribal customs with dignity and honor.

The American flag took on new meaning at these gatherings. Ancient warrior society protocol began to reemerge to honor the modern-day warriors. Servicemen and veterans danced in atraditional way. Even today, should an eagle feather fall from a dancer’s regalia during a dance, only a veteran may retrieve it and take to its rightful owner.


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