Explosive Changes in Pow Wows for Urban Natives

Julianne Jennings

Contemporary American Indian pow wows have been undergoing a considerable amount of cultural change. Among the various aspects examined are pow wows’ social networks — pow wows as an expression of identity, ideas of community, social integration, and the transgression of customary boundaries formally assigned to share meanings about appropriate gendered behaviors, specifically, gender crossing, and the public acknowledgement of gay individuals during urban pow wows. “This new phenomena, the rearticulating of gendered meanings, are put in relation to historical and ethnographic evidence that reports the participation of temporary gender liminal in public dances. For example, “Tribal women would celebrate their husband’s victories holding war trophies or scalps, that included temporary “transvestism,” whereby women donned their husband’s clothes and painted their faces in warrior fashion in their honor” (academic.com). On the basis of such ethnographical evidence, “A new wave of urban gay, lesbian and transgender Native Americans (who collectively call themselves Two-Spirits) has argued its legitimate place in contemporary indigenous pow wow circles.” We have also witnessed religious syncretism or blending between Christianity and Native American religious traditions. At least as early as 2006, Hip Hop dancing has also been invading the sacred circle of Native American dance.

Wakinyan Duuta (Tsuu T’ina) explains, “The concept of pow wow is not traditional by any means. It was introduced in the Buffalo Bill show days. It just got adopted and adapted to fill in a void that allowed a form of cultural co-existence. These displays continued as a way of showing bits of who we are. I believe that tribes adapted this so they can practice ceremonial beliefs under the guise of dance exhibitions. Whoever sees pow wows’ as traditional is not that informed or perhaps they have made it evolve enough to put something sacred into it?”

The social context of urban pow wows is significantly different from traditional pow wows with which they originally sprang. Urban pow wow participants now engage with multiple realities that expose them to rich new lifestyles, innovative role models, and expanded views about Native America. Duuta adds, “I don’t know what pow wows in the east are like, but out west the pow wows have been ever so slowly changing to what is popular. Neon colors, French braids, hip hop fancy dancers, changes to dance styles, even in the so called traditional styles. Bigger seems to be better. The more feathers and bigger the more it seems accepted and favorable to judges. I suppose it has to be dynamic and not static if some form of Native/indigenous/Aboriginal/First Nations discourse is to continue.”

Is our culture becoming more Eurocentric? Have we lost our tradition and bought into the commercialization of pow wows? For example, the pow wow marketplace has evolved into mostly Anglos selling their interpretation of Native American jewelry. It’s all about making money.

The real issues of exploitation, commercialization and how “white” corporate America, that represents 1 percent of the population, uses our culture and identity for their own political advancement (Politician Elizabeth Warren, for example) or to maintain the continued subjugation of our people, in this sense, the selling of trinkets has reduced our sacred objects to commercial product.

Urban pow wows are not only the most visual, but the most carnivalized of cultural difference integrated into the larger urban pow wow population. There publicized in the “white” press to spectators who don’t know the cultural significance or history of the Native participants, and see it as merely entertainment, and don’t understand the differences between the plurality (red, black, white, brown) among us.

Black/brown Indians are people of mixed racial heritage, who have strong ties to Native American culture, as do white Indians. Many Indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, such as the Narragansett, Pequot, Lumbee and Cherokee have a significant number of African ancestors, and dance in celebration of their total being. Spectators ignorant of this history cannot comprehend the diversity or the insult to the Native people when they hold fast to the myth of the “Hollywood Indian” or “noble savage” image. The sad part is, stereotypes can also become self-perpetuating when stereotyped individuals are made to feel self-conscious or inadequate. In other words, we don’t “look” Indian, so we dress Indian. Lorraine Baker (Nottoway-E. Pequot) asserts, “We have been made to feel ashamed of our “mixed-race” heritage. We are looking for acceptance in a now ‘created ethnicity’ trying to prove what we are.” She continues, “At the pow wow I am discriminated against by the degree of my skin color (White, Indian and Black) by my own people.” Others have complained of similar treatment.

Hip Hop, a cultural movement that formed during the late 1960s among African Americans and Latino youth, featuring rap with electronic rhythms, has been a voice for oppressed people, a method of subverting the dominant culture and a revolutionary communication process in song and dance. Many have said Hip Hop attracts Indian youth to the circle, while others have said Hip Hop dancing is yet another layer of assimilation to peel back and that Native culture has already suffered enough loss and dilution. The Hip Hop element in the circle has now given rise to a new term, “ghetto pow wow.” Will the assimilation through total immersion of other cultures/ideas be our end? Growth of culture is import, but you can’t assimilate to the point where everything of the traditional culture is gone: it is genocide, ethnocide, linguiside, and destruction at the expense of the original cultures.

The one thing that has been a constant component has been the yearly reunion of family.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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talyn's picture
The yearly reunion of the family. Now that is sure as hell worth celebrating, no matter how campy and commercial the trappings sometimes seem. It has always seemed to me that is the true heart of the pow wow and as long as that remains true they are a vehicle for cultural continuity no matter how they evolve. Culture is people as much as it is ceremony, common history, common memory, common bond. Yes, it would be nice to roll back the commercialization, maybe give the market and the public display a separate space from the more sacred and spiritual practice. But as long as it keeps bringing families back together, its a good thing.
redroad's picture
Growing up in Southern California (Los Angeles), then moving to Northern California (Sacramento) then once again to New Mexico (Albuquerque) Ive been able to experience hundreds of indigenous gatherings throughout the years starting before I could walk. Ill admit the days of grandmas cooking fry bread are long gone in the cities. Mostly whites or college kids using canned biscuit or pizza dough cooked in vegetable oil is the sad reality these days. The fact is that fry bread is not even a traditional food but it represents one thing to me, a connection to the suffering our ancestors had to overcome in order to survive. Many times these “ghetto” gatherings are the only times that old friends and family are able to come together and eat, play and get the goose bumps when the drums come to life. Seeing the babies who can barely walk join in the inter-tribal dance is really what its all about. Getting people to understand where they come from, not forgetting the past and realizing that they are not the only ones out there. In L.A. Im glad to finally see the “south of the border” nations finally embracing their indigenous roots and getting together to celebrate/educate. What makes me the most proud is the emergence of more women gatherings. For First Nations the woman is the center of society and with ‘assimilation’ many have forgotten the importance of honoring the mother. The one thing that was a common problem was ‘full bloods’ looking down on mixed. Many of these bigoted ‘skins’ were far from traditional to boot, often substance and domestic abusers with chips on their shoulders. Yes they lived on the rez but looking at the house (or trailer) it didnt look any different than the pads in the hood. Most of the time you couldn’t tell the difference between the drunk full blood or the drunk Mexican! Full blood or not most of us have been stripped of our traditions, a fully traditional way of life is almost impossible to obtain and infighting just makes us all weaker. Wake up! We all are suffering a loss of culture and traditions, none of us are better than the other even if you are a full blood with a ton of casino money. If it takes rap, hip hop, record or film releases to get the kids aware and plant the seed so be it. Ive seen plenty shed the commercialism or hype and seek more traditional ways many times. If it gets just one kid to ask their grandparents where they come from its a step in the right direction. Imagine a day when the original 1 percent was joined by their other North, Central and South american cousins in the awareness of their aboriginal roots and becoming the 50 or more percent and start to take back our lands. Then we just have to get everyone to vote!
hedpnder's picture
Dilute, dilute, dilute, now dilute some more..you’ll get what you already have in Salt River Pima Rez and Fort McDowell Rez…shell Indians with no clue of who they are or where they came from…dysfunctional Communities with rampant drug and alcohol abuse, rape, incest and domestic violence but hey it’s ok cause we get casino money…who’s to blame for this atrocity and your worrying about bullsh*t pow wow’s that are just an excuse to party? Wake the f#*k up and smell what the white man has done to you today!
WhiteManWanting's picture
Generally skilled professions require a designated amount of Continuing Education hours every year or two in order to apply for license renewal. Standards of what is (and is not) appropriate for inclusion in such training have been developed, and there is a limited number of organizations recognized as having the authority to “approve” the Continuing Education hours granted at each of these workshops, seminars, etc. The standards not only include content, but also how long breaks can be, whether they can be on line vs. in person, etc. In advertising for professional training, trainers have learned to prominently include the “CE hours” available and the specific organization granting those “approved” CE hours. Professionals quickly look for the approval of any workshop that might be of interest, in order that it will conform to recognized standards of the profession. A professional may find a workshop that has not sought and received such approval and choose to go, but they go knowing it does not meet the standards for ongoing professional training for their profession. The state licensing board in my own profession has only approved one state professional organization and one national professional organization as having the authority to approve CE hours in my profession. I can go to other related professional training and get “related” credit hours, so to speak, but I know it is not going to count for the “core” hours required for my next state license renewal. In this manner, the various professions effectively self-regulate and keep up the standards (and ongoing education) of the profession. Is there not one or a small number of organizations that establish standards for pow wows? And if not, why not develop them? Whereas professionals are required to submit their material ahead of time to a Continuing Education approval organization in order to advertise such approval in their advertising, could not the same be done by groups that regularly organize pow wows, submitting their pow wow standards to a “pow wow board” for approval? And individual participants would then be expected to show a specific pow wow organizer that they intended to adhere to a stated set of standards in their participation. In other words, organizers would apply for “approval” based on the standards set for their pow wows, and once granted, the advertising announcements for the pow wows could then be proudly displayed, showing that the pow wow could be expected by attendees to appropriately respect, reflect, and maintain Native practices, dress, etc. Yes, it could become bureaucratic, but nothing is perfect. At least agreed-upon standards could be set, participants could then actually become more educated in what’s “real” and what’s watered down or even “fake,” and those attending (whether Native or not), would have at least a better assurance that what they are attending truly reflects aspects of what it is to be Indian – no government regulation, just self-regulation. I’ve found myself looking in the lists of upcoming pow wows, to see if one will be held nearby my home, with the intent of attending – for education and appreciation. But I’ve wondered if what I’d be seeing, or at least how much of it, would be authentic. How nice it would be to know I’d have a better chance of experiencing “authentic” if there was an internal set of standards set, and that those standards had been met by the organization presenting the pow wow. I don’t want to watch Daniel Boone’s Oxford-educated Indian, played by a Jewish actor, and think I’m learning about Native American dress and culture. And how much more important would it be for the participants to gain the education about what IS considered authentic vs. what is not traditional – and then learn (or improve) the skills and knowledge needed to present it? Think of even such things as figure skating. Routines all vary, yet there are certain named skills that must be accomplished (jumps, turns, whatever) that have standards of excellence established, and skaters that cannot (or will not) conform to or meet those standards either never get to the major competitions, or they quickly find themselves out. And thus the “shows” at those competitions become works worthy of appreciation because they adhere to a recognized set of standards. Just one man’s outsider thoughts….