Jim and Pat Northrup
Jim and Pat Northrup were part of the earlier pow wow circuits

From Traditional to Commercialized Doings, Times Have Changed on the Pow Wow Circuit

Christina Rose

Pow wows just aren’t what they used to be, according to a handful of elders across the Plains states. There was a time, not too long ago, when a pow wow was not about contests or fancy regalia, but was simply a gathering of family and friends, with homemade food, giveaways and unnamed dances.

Commercial is the word most often used to describe today’s pow wows, as opposed to traditional, as they were called on Pine Ridge, South Dakota. In the 1960s, Lydia Bear Killer, Oglala Lakota Tribal Council member, remembers going with her grandmother. “There were no contests, no categories, no concession stands.” Bear Killer said, remembering that most people spoke Lakota, and the children listened to the stories told by their grandparents. “The grandmothers talked about medicines they made. I used to see a root she had; it looked like a little human and I was scared on that,” she laughed. “It was bitterroot.”

Families camped there and ate together, Bear Killer said, adding, “All the tiospaye [extended family] were together. It was time to visit.” From Bear Killer’s perspective, pow wows are no longer the relaxing events of times gone by. “Today it’s really fast. It’s more stress than relaxing,” she said.

Richie Plass, founder of the Bittersweet Winds Mascot Exhibit and Lifetime Achievement Award winner of the 2013 Indian Summer Music Awards, remembers being “a little fella” back when pow wows were called “Doings” on the Menominee Reservation. “We would don our attire and we would do all these different kinds of dances. There was nothing called categories, we just all danced,” Plass said. “Then at night, we would wait around until they would put a blanket over the drum. My dad would call out, ‘Where are the kids? He would count noses and give us each three to five bucks.”

Dakota Vietnam War veteran Myron Williams said that when he was young, the dancing was much less organized. “Back in ’92 and ’94, people would bring a lot of food,” Williams said. 


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Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Too many times is not about being humble as the Creator expects of us, but rather, it so many times seems to be a prideful display. What we have or talents we have is not from our doing, but because the Creator has loaned us this all. When people forget this all we have forgot who our praise SHOULD be about: The Creator. When an individual forgets where everything comes from then they have lost their center & reason for existing: For our Creator. When a people become prideful in the wrong way they open the door to things coming into their life that bring nothing but shame, pain & punishment. Our powwow's need to return to their roots: Praise of the Creator, celebrating a joyful event & sharing kindness, compassion & happiness for being allowed one more time to be with those we love & who love us as well. Think about this my friends.............Life is too short for anything else BUT these things.............Creator FIRST! Family SECOND! Self: Last!

dinagw's picture
Submitted by dinagw on
Great article Christina. It really speaks to the degree capitalism has influenced our cultures. Dancers who dance for money, artists selling their work for the same reason.....perpetuating culture while simultaneously trying to earn a living. How does that change culture? Does it diminish it or enhance it? Check out John H. Moore's article called "How Giveaways and Powwows Redistribute the Means of Subsistence" in a book called The Political Economy of North American Indians for an interesting perspective.

Lmorsette's picture
Submitted by Lmorsette on
Pow Wows are absolutely not the same! At least for me they are not. But let’s not forget what the past pow wows have done for many of us. They brought healing, happiness, and an escape from our own realities of life. Consider the pow wow life style a stepping stone in one’s own journey. Many of us never get to achieve a life long journey filled with happiness and dreams. We forget to dream, we forget to live, and we forget who we are along the way. We get caught up in a fantasy life that nobody wants to leave. So we dance because we feel free from our own traps set in our daily lives. I use to think that the rest of my life would revolve around the pow wow circuit and my pow wow family. I left the pow wow life style when I was just 16 years old. I had spent so much of my life on the pow wow trail that I didn't have any goals or ideas of anything different. One day I found myself lost with little hope about what true friendship and family was all about. I realized that my true family was at home and that I had other obligations and goals in life but I knew I wasn’t going to find my way if I continued to live on the pow wow trail. So I returned home. Still lost and confused I realized that the pow wow circuit brought me back to life. It gave me hope. But you have to almost feel the death of one thing in order to feel alive with another. The beginning of my rebirth I struggled with myself and who I was or where I was supposed to go in my life. The pow wows may be different to us but they are not different to our younger generations. The pow wows are still the life line and little incubators that help us, heal us, and allow us to get back on our feet finding our ways through this difficult world. If you can see what little is left in the pow wows and what it gives people then you too will understand that no matter what happens or what we say this way of life style adopted or not will forever shine a spec of lite on our young to ensure they too find their own way through life. As for returning to the circle..I am in the circle and I am dancing through life every single day. Is it just a fantasy or is it a way to show us life? You decide! -Lori