Note: all original writing (presented here) is copyrighted by the Library of Congress to Mary Magoulick. It may be used only according to copyright law and by permission of the author.

Living as Native American

Powwows and spiritual ceremonies

From various means of learning about and immersing oneself in the culture, one may achieve life-transforming results, or one may simply find an appreciation of part of one’s heritage that has less dramatic, but still significant effects. Wabagoni sees powwows and spiritual gatherings as crucial places where the culture is transmitted and strengthened:

I think a lot of the Native people are really starting to come together and starting to attend to the Native doings that are going on, whether it be powwows or spiritual gatherings. There’s still a few that are kind of, you know, still, not really prepared you know to go on, and walk that way, you know, because they’ve been brought up in the fast pace of life and they’re just too busy doing what they need to do, whether it be working at the casino, or working at another job, maybe working in a plant somewhere, and where they kind of work ‘em you know, around the clock basis almost, and they can’t spend some time with their families type of thing. And I’ve noticed when I go to the powwows and when I go to the spiritual gatherings, more and more of them are starting to come forward and listen to what the elders have to say.


Wabagoni notices that powwows are a separate kind of space and time from the usual routine of daily life – working at a factory or casino, etc. They give people a chance to get away from “the fast pace of life” and to “come forward and listen to . . . elders.” As festivals, powwows are expected to serve such a function.

Powwows are festival events organized by tribes across the continent. The primary expressive modes at powwows are dancing, singing, drumming, and dressing in unique costumes known as “regalia.” Typically, regalia is made by the dancer and / or her or his family and friends, based on personality and inspiration. There are distinctive patterns of regalia / costume for specific dances. So, for instance, all “jingle dress dancers” will be identifiable by their regalia as such. Yet each dancer’s regalia is unique. Patterns, colors, materials, and designs allow for enormous variation and creativity. Barre Toelken describes powwow dress:

Outfits avoid tribal-specific details . . . For example, a Navajo who dances in a ritual yei-bi-chei dance would never wear his mask and ritual sash to a powwow, but if he were to enter a fancy dance competition he would put on an assemblage of feathered wings and bustles which would have seemed totally foreign to his Athabascan ancestors (and, admittedly, hyperbolic even to the well-feathered Plains Indians from whom the motif comes). In feathers, bells, shells, hot colors, satin gym trunks, and perhaps sun glasses to boot, he would look unlike any Indian of 200 years ago, but he would look just like thousands of other powwow dancers today. (146)


Powwow dress is characteristic, but not all the same. Toelken believes that powwow clothing reflects stylistically “beliefs and assumptions about its symbolic function,” such as animals, birds, the sea, and humans. “The outfit is thus said to honor all that gives life on earth, all that provides humans with food, warmth, and sacred power . . . . The outfits worn at the powwow provide an occasion for the material and oral articulation and transmission of traditional values” (147). As Wabagoni and Toelken note, people come to powwows to learn culture and to experience and be strengthened in their ethnicity.

Like costuming, the dancing is highly ritualized and specific, yet allows for individual expression and creativity. The dancers dance in clockwise direction around the drummers. Some people dance without regalia, though most have some special jewelry or clothing for powwows even if they don’t have an elaborate costume. The dancing is typically a rhythmic, bouncing shuffle, unless a specific dance is called.  Some dances are “inter-tribal” meaning anyone can dance any type of dance at the same time. Other dances call for specific dancers to participate – just female fancy dancers or just male traditional dancers for instance. At the powwows in the Eastern U. P., competitions for money or prizes were rare. Instead most dancers received small gifts at “giveaway ceremonies” toward the end of the powwow. Part of this ceremony involves standing in a line to shake the hands of all other participants, strengthening the already predominant social element.

As a whole the powwow follows typical festival patterns involving ritualized entries, announcements, dance patterns, spatial organization, etc. In the Great Lakes area the drummers are always in the innermost circle covered by an “arbor” of green tree limbs. The drummers are all men, usually young men. They often sing while drumming, and women may stand around the outside of the drumming circle to add their voices to certain songs. Spectator stands or chairs circle the dance area. There is always a Master of Ceremonies, an honored position, usually a middle-aged or elder man, often one who speaks the language and / or tells jokes well. The M.C. uses a microphone to explain the ceremonies and dances, and sits near the entry way, also covered by an arbor.

Around the spectator stands is a place to walk, and beyond that sits another circle of merchants, selling typical powwow food: “Indian Tacos” (fried bread covered with taco-seasoned meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and salsa), burgers, fry bread, sodas, and lemonade. Merchants also sell costuming supplies such as beads, feathers, leather, and so on, and other souvenirs like dream catchers. Often there are further circles beyond the merchants of tents, recreational vehicles, campers, and sometimes even teepees where participants and merchants sleep, and then finally cars and more distant spectators on the outermost rim. Some come there for friends or food, but do not come very close to the “action.”

In all such ways, powwows fulfill typical festival characteristics, as Beverly Stoeltje’s discussion of festival confirms:

Festival can incorporate every art and play form in the culture, combining them in infinite variations, manipulating both form and content, and transcending routine perceptions through intense participation in artistic and ludic expression. . . . Noise, smells, food, costume, rhythm, and action bombard the senses, using every semiotic code. These are expressed in local genres of music and dance, drama, feasts, verbal art, and display forms, and presented in multiple scenes, both scheduled and spontaneous, many of which occur simultaneously . . . .  Such complexity often gives rise to an impression of chaos and disorder” (1983, 240).


To make sense of this apparent chaos, Stoeltje offers’ a “conceptual framework” that delineate the structure and function of festivals like the powwow. They take place at certain times and places, involve ceremonies, rituals, drama and contests, concluding (and opening) events, music and food, outside performers, participation, and symbolic action (1983, 240-243). Barre Toelken shows that powwows fulfill all these structural and functional dimensions outlined by Stoeltje.

Overall powwows serve as “an all-encompassing metaphor for cultural reality” (Toelken 151). The community uses festivals as a way of strengthening and expressing itself. As Beverly Stoeltje defines festivals, “they occur at calendrically regulated intervals and are public in nature, participatory in ethos, complex in structure, and multiple in voice, scene, and purpose” (161). They also allow for the “expression of group identity” and “articulation of the group’s heritage” (161). Like rituals, they may provide a kind of liminal space in Turner’s sense of liminality. Turner uses Van Gennup’s notion of a typical pattern for rituals (and festivals): separation from daily life, followed by a liminal space of communitas (where values and worldview are symbolic expressed or challenged), and finally re-integration back into society (possibly altered by the insights and experiences from liminal space) (Turner, 1969).

Toelken notices the same pattern of the ritual process within powwows: “the dance genre for American Indians is one which brings about engagement, integration, and re-integration . . . dance embodies cultural attitudes which cannot readily be articulated today in other ways” (153). The universal dimensions of the powwow among tribes (which Toelken demonstrates) are understandable when we consider that Native Americans share a “contemporary reality . . . of a commonly experienced, commonly perceived corrosive trauma” (153). In response to the trauma and culturally corrosive experience of the impact with non-Native cultures, Native people seek to express and benefit from a new, affirming ethnicity and to find potential for change and healing in the powwow.

Turner explains that ceremonies (like the powwow) are necessary for all societies:

Society . . . is a process in which any living, relatively well-blended human group alternates between fixed and . . . “floating worlds.” By verbal and nonverbal means of classification we impose upon ourselves innumerable constraints and boundaries to keep chaos at bay . . . .Yet in order to live, breathe, and to generate novelty, human beings have had to create – by structural means – spaces and times in the calendar or, in the cultural cycles of their most cherished groups which cannot be captured in the classificatory nets of their quotidian, routinized spheres of action. These liminal areas of times and space – rituals, carnivals, dramas, and latterly films – are open to the play of thought, feeling, and will; in them are generated new models, often fantastic, some of which may have sufficient power and plausibility to replace eventually the force-backed political and jural models that control the centers of a society’s ongoing life.  (1969, vii)


Turner’s model assumes cultures change and adapt, and recognizes carnival, rituals, etc., as the means for such ideas of change to be communicated. Within the actual festivals, we expect to find a liminal time and space, that is a time and space separated from normal life. The powwow, with its distinctive clothing, music, food, and events, fits such a description. As a time when new ideas and models of society and human behavior are displayed, the festival powwows offer people a chance to change.

Mark Mattern develops an argument for the importance of the powwow as just such a means of change in the community:

While the dual roles of the powwows – fostering unity while enabling disagreement and debate – may seem mutually incompatible, in fact they are complementary. The latter role of enabling disagreement and debate contributes to the resiliency and flexibility of Indian communities by helping manage the tension between unity and diversity. Disagreement and conflict are inevitable among diverse peoples. The significance of the powwow is partly understood in the terms I have suggested of providing a public, communicative forum where differences can be expressed and potentially negotiated. . . . Powwow practices provide a means of finding sufficient unity for survival and partial prosperity in part because they enable and even foster healthy disagreement and discussion over differences that divide Indians. (1999, 141)


As a means of working out cultural differences, powwows show the dynamic and lively presence of Native American cultures during this resurgence that powwows both represent and help to perpetuate.

The difference between festivals and rituals is that festivals tend to be more secular and playful, as Stoeltje explains: “Festival designates occasions considered to be pagan, recreational, or for children. Like play and creativity, festival explores and experiments with meaning, in contrast to ritual, which attempts to control meaning” (161-162). Powwows are festivals, yet include ritualistic elements. They are not forcibly determinative and controlling, but do allow for learning cultural lessons, and have “transformative potential” (Stoeltje 164). It is thus not surprising that so many Native people point to the powwow as the place and time for communicating important ideas, as well as indicating that it is the event that spurred their personal, important life and identity changes. Societies in trauma are simply more likely to value and host festivals which offer a means of positive change and healing.

The powwow is a likely arena for expressing and identifying a new ethnicity, because, like rituals, festivals are at base expressive communicative events, as Edmund Leach notes: “We engage in rituals in order to transmit collective messages to ourselves” (45). In the complex system of symbol making and message transmission of a festival, what is communicated? For Ojibwe who come to festivals it is clear that the messages center around identity as Native Americans. Barre Toelken concurs that powwows have an overtly identity-forming aspect:

The powwow phenomenon can be viewed as a decodable kinetic statement about the realities of life for ethnically aware Native Americans, as well as a tableau scene of intense cultural meaning within hostile surroundings . . . . What they have done with the powwow is to intensify and solidify an occasion through which they can celebrate the continued existence of Indian ways of life . . . . function to preserve cultural values even under the most trying of circumstances  (138, 155)


Stoeltje agrees that the festival “facilitates regeneration through the rearrangement of structures, thus creating new frames and processes” (165). As described by scholars, the powwow should be the place and time for realization and enactment of identity and values. Many of the consultants with whom I work demonstrate that it works exactly that way.

Powwows offer prime opportunities for cultural involvement, reunions with friends and family, and expression of ethnicity. Clara Sue Kidwell summarizes the function of the “jingle dress” in helping the dancer to connect to her community and traditions (even though that tradition is relatively recent): “The jingle dress today . . . is very much the sign of a woman who knows and values her cultural roots and has learned the distinctive way of dancing that makes the dress she wears a thing of sound and beauty” (1994, 14). Those in the inner circles of the powwow are often those most involved in cultural revitalization. The jingle dress dancers are especially proud, because to make and wear her regalia, a woman must dream she should. And her dance is valued for its healing power.

John Cappa discusses how powwows and ceremonies (like fires / talking circles) helped his transformation from purposeless alcoholic to language teacher and spiritual leader in his community. I ask when he first went to powwows. He replies:

It was not too long ago. A real powwow anyway. We went to one in Wiikwemigong many years ago, 1972, not too very long ago I guess. I really wanted that powwow, it was nothing but a place to go and get drunk, to drink. I remember I was gonna go in but I didn’t go in. But I was, they had a lot of people who were selling things outside there, traders I guess you would call it, and I ah I bought this little ah, headband, and on this headband it said “Chief Grey Owl” [we laugh] and a feather sticking out the back. I put that on, “I'm an Indian!” Walk around, people, tourists laughing at me. And my brother came and said “take that off, you look stupid with that!” I said, “oh I was gonna leave it on.” Pour myself another drink. [he laughs]


I look back at the day and I say “My God John.” You see people like me, used to be, people like me. I know exactly where they’re at [with a little laugh], I know what they’re, [sigh] where they are today. Um, but it was, I think, I think we all get these momento, moments of times, when we finally come to a realization that this, this is really it, this is what’s happening.


And mine was in Keewenaw Bay, in Baraga, after I had gone to treatment and whatever. And we, they said we can go to a powwow, so I thought, “Hey, that’s pretty good. Everybody’s you know, good friends of mine, nobody’s drinking.” And I remember sitting on the bleachers, just waiting, watching everybody go here and there, and hustle and bustle of the powwow to begin, and all of a sudden there was a grand entry, and we were all asked to stand up, and that’s when I caught, said “Woahhhh, this is really, really remarkable!” Here I saw the um, the veterans come on in with their flags and the eagle staffs, and bells and drums and songs, there were just, it was just overwhelming.


I’d heard ‘em before but not that way.  And we started to take a closer look and said, “wow, that's me, that is me out there. What am I doing up here. I'm not one of the spectators.” And I started getting a real appreciation for what is known as a powwow ceremonies. So I went! Every chance I got. Somebody’s always going to a powwow. If I’m gonna hitch a ride with somebody, just enough to get into the [event], you know, a couple of bucks [laughs].

John here confirms Severt Young Bear’s image of powwow participants. While still an alcoholic, he did not go into the dancing area, but just clowned around on the outside (near the vendors and tourists), as a place to get drunk. Later, when he finally does go in, the powwow is so appealing, that choosing to participate in it is his life-changing moment. He observes people with whom he identifies – veterans – being honored in a beautiful ceremony. Like many Native people I knew, John hadn’t experienced much positive feedback about being Native during most of his life. He went to Catholic schools and lived in the white world where racism against his people was rampant. Though he served in the military, he never felt he had succeeded in life, or had much purpose. He had always wanted to speak English better than he did and to succeed in jobs and school. The only images of Indians during his youth were either negative or unrealistic. So, in this earlier 1970's powwow, he put on the headband to mock himself based on the image of Indians he had learned. But once sober and “inside,” he saw Indians honored in an attractive ceremony in today’s world, and so he too entered that world.

After his initial attraction to powwows and Native ceremonies, John changed his life. He became an addiction counselor and eventually a language teacher and began practicing and hosting spiritual ceremonies himself. He explains the importance of fires / talking circles:


Somebody, Mike Cash [a BMCC student and friend of John’s] matter of fact, is the one who graced me with the with the idea of ceremonies. He told me many times, “why don’t you go over, come over to my house?” He had a place like this, but off the lake, but he just had a little cabin out in the woods, in a small parcel of woods in Marquette, you know [laughs].  That was kind of neat. 


So he did the same thing what we’re doing here. He made a, dedicated a spot for a sacred fire, and they always told me, “Let’s go to, come to my house, we’ll have a fire.” “Ah, no problem, what’s a fire anyway?”


And then pretty soon, he started talking about those, a lot of things about the fire, lot of things about the eagle feather and so on and so forth, and then pretty soon again, he says, “Come over and have a fire at my place.” I said, “oh, another fire.” Pretty soon it caught on. If I didn’t hear, you know if I, I was thinking to myself, I already heard this, put beside of a fire, sacred fire business, but it seemed like every time I started to doubt that, more and more things came in, perhaps a wider scope of understanding for myself came in, and, and what I gradually, gradually did for myself, what did the rehabilitation, what, what did it teach us, what did it teach me?


One of things it taught me was the um [clears throat] keep, just keep going to the meetings, AA meetings. If it gets boring and monotonous, it’s probably what you want to hear, so I started to apply those types of principles in going to those sacred fires and ceremonies, and they began to start to work. The mind, if you bring the body, the mind will follow. And eventually I started to understand a lot of things.


Sometimes I took it very, very critical, in terms of what some elders were talking about. I thought they were um, purposely saying the things that they were saying in reference to me. And yet, at the same time I was beginning to understand a lot of the things that they were and saying and start, start living that way of life. 


There was some very hard, hard rules and lessons that the elders talk about, even still some today, would turn around, and would really be hard, hard on other spiritual people, that you shouldn’t be in those places of taagegamgong uh, gambling halls, you’re carrying these sacred items that don’t belong there, but you’re not bringing them there, but still, you’re bringing yourself and you’re responsible for sacred items, and those are some of the teachings that some people carry.


Ceremonial life helps bring home the message of sobriety and purpose in John. The circle brought John to an awakening. It is not an easy process, “there was some very hard, hard rules and lessons that the elders talk about, even still some today, would turn around, and would really be hard.” But in spite of the difficulty he is able to keep going to the circles, which help him as much as or more than AA meetings, because they have a traditional, Native tinge to them that makes them seem more real and more important to him personally. So at the fires, even though it is very hard, “And yet, at the same time I was beginning to understand a lot of the things that they were and saying and start, start living that way of life.” John transforms himself in real life terms, from an unemployed alcoholic to a productive and valued member of the Native community.

Once he transformed himself from someone who did not care about life, to someone who was willing to hear the elders, attend the fires, and contemplate his actions and identity, John was able to build his own vision of good living, and his own interpretation of history:

I also take a look at, I wonder, “What if it [gambling] is still a means of  support? And that’s a means to make a living, you know, according to my history of way back, did the Native people in the 1800's fight and argue with those people who traded with the French as they came in? You know, “Don’t go do that, don’t go to that store. We have all the things we need here!” And I’m sure there were [some who said that]. I’m sure there were!

But you know, it was also very convenient for Native people too, in order to survive the harsh winters that they have, you know? To be able to work hand in hand with those things, like the idea of tools. Can we, can I go ahead and use these tools, other than use the stone and ax type of thing to cut through the bones of the meat to the animals? You can, we can borrow those, we can use those same things [he says something unintelligible here] farther with that.


John worked out for himself that gambling is okay. But it isn’t the most spiritual and authentic way of living. But life is hard, as it was for the ancestors, so just as it was okay for them to use metal knives, it is okay for change to occur today. Casinos give people jobs. John thus supports a dynamic, flexible view of culture. He realizes that modernizing per se does not destroy culture, opening the way for affirming and accepting the authenticity of the revitalization of culture in which he participates, and which indeed helped to save his life.

John is not unique among my consultants. More often than not the pattern among Native people is similar. They come to an appreciation and identification of being Native while attending a powwow or similar ceremony, then become immersed in the teachings, and finally come to their own understanding and enactment of the culture. Remember that Ogimakwe received her name and her clan, two crucial markers of her identity, at a powwow. Furthermore, she explains how Native values are transmitted at powwows:

At powwow an elder came up to Jake called him “young warrior,” and told him “we don’t act like that. This is what we do and this is why we do it,” and patted him on the chest, “Grrr. Be strong!” and walked away. It instilled pride in Jake instead of, “Listen here you little brat! Knock it off before I wring your neck!” And we’ve gotten away from that.


This elder perpetuates a way of raising children based on perceived traditional values – “we’ve gotten away from that” – of strong, extended families and communities that share responsibility for child-rearing and use reason and example rather than threats and violence.

Another consultant, Linda, also appreciates powwows as a place for young people to learn positive ways of acting and learning about culture. She is especially impressed that they are alcohol free events:

I think they have the right idea, where powwows and events are alcohol free, and like, drumming, which my son wants to do. I’d like to get him around the drummers, um, they have to be sober for 14 months before they can drum, or be on the drum, so I think that’s a, that’s the right way about it, and to teach kids as they’re young, how to be different than – If that’s all they grew up that’s all they know, unless they’re taught different. And surely if the parents are doing it they’re not teaching them any different.

The drumming circle is clearly a place for positive, sober role models for young boys to aspire to and learn from. The culture provides a way of living that can help overcome problems of alcoholism.

In literature the image of the powwow is likewise strong and ubiquitous as a marker of Indian identity. Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues ends with a dream of the persistence and beauty of Native culture based on powwow singing:

In a dream, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas sat at the drum with Big Mom during the powwow. All the Spokane Indians crowded around the drum, too. They all pounded the drum and sang. . . . They would sing and sing until Big Mom pulled out that flute built of the bones of the most beautiful horse who ever lived. She’d play a note, then two, three, then nine hundred. One for each of the dead horses. Then she’d keep playing, nine hundred, nine thousand, nine million, one note for each of the dead Indians.  (306)


In Alexie’s image, the powwow song has power to revive people and the spirit of the tribe itself. Though ephemeral, this image reflects the power attributed to powwow by many Native Americans today.

N. Scott Momaday also invokes the special power of dance celebrations to revive and renew the community each year. He writes: “Here and there near Rainy Mountain, especially in the summer, the Kiowa gather themselves in groups and dance in order to celebrate their collective lives, to express their spirit as a people. They do so now, and they have done so for as long as anyone knows” (1989, 11). Of course specific dancing styles and expressions (such as dress) have changed over time in most communities, but the feeling that these celebrations “express their spirit as a people” lives on in the modern dancing festivals.