Skip to main content

History of the National Powwow

  • Author:
  • Updated:

WASHINGTON - The National Powwow is somewhat unique in several ways. Its history only dates back to 1992, with just four pow wows prior to 2007. It's been held in several different locations during that time. The audience is largely non-Native. There is a specific theme to the pow wow. And the media coverage is absolutely incredible.

The first National Powwow was held at Pace University in New York City in 1992, commonly referred to as the Pace Powwow. Fred Nahwooksy, now exhibitions program coordinator for the National Museum of the American Indian, was involved, as he has been with each pow wow since. ''Our intention back then was to host an educational expressive cultural opportunity for our audiences in New York City,'' Nahwooksy recalled. ''At that time, we didn't have the museum on the Mall, and the George Gustav Heye Center was just opening.''

The National Museum has three facilities, one of them being the Heye Center in lower Manhattan. A passionate collector of Native artifacts, George Gustav Heye stipulated in his will that his collection would always remain in New York, thus the origin of the name and purpose for that facility.

''We wanted to do some educational public programming, not only to educate but also increase awareness and something that would entertain and people could participate in. So we did the first pow wow at Pace University for that purpose,'' Nahwooksy said.

The second pow wow followed just two years later, in 1994. That one was held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.

A lengthy break then followed, and the third pow wow wasn't held until 2002. It was at the time that construction on the National Museum was beginning. Terry Snowball was assistant project manager at that event and is co-project manager with Jackie Swift for the 2007 pow wow.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

''During the time the 2002 pow wow was on you could actually look across the way to where the National Museum now is. We were in construction and you could see where it was being built,'' Snowball said. ''It was becoming a reality, and part of that [the pow wow] was to bring some visibility and excitement. Pow wow is such a broad cultural dynamic, it's one of the more effective ways in which you get visibility to the museum as well as to its other events.''

Following that pow wow, a special events task force was developed utilizing the people who had worked on the pow wow and the expertise they had gained. Other major events were coming up where that knowledge would be valuable. There was the First Americans Festival and the Native Nations Procession, and then the opening ceremony for the National Museum itself.

The summer of 2005 brought the fourth National Powwow, its theme the origin and evolution of pow wows and dances. It was held at the MCI Center in Washington. Dancers were brought in to demonstrate the original style of dances still performed but changed from what they once were. ''Not only were we educating non-Native spectators, but also were educating our Native participants in a sense,'' Snowball explained. ''As a museum and an educational institution, we have to convey some sense of knowledge in what we're presenting to people.''

Jackie Swift spoke of the media attention the 2005 pow wow generated. ''We had 21 million media hits. It was massive! We were covered internationally. We were on the front cover of U.S. Today, made The New York Times, the L.A. Times and the Washington Post. We had over 100 media folks and TV crews from Finland, Germany, Canada and elsewhere. It was on all the local news, radio shows, CNN.''

''In the sense of the history of pow wows, what type of event gets that type of coverage? You can't buy that kind of publicity,'' Nahwooksy said. ''It also brings attention to the museum itself and to the other programs we emphasize and what other exhibits are ongoing.''

It isn't the largest pow wow by any means. The 2005 event had about 600 dancers and 14 drums. ''But it's a different audience here where we have predominantly a non-Native audience, unlike other areas where Native people primarily make up the audience,'' Swift explained.

So 2007 will be the fifth National Powwow and the third to be held in the nation's capital. This year's theme highlights warriors past and present. As Snowball pointed out, ''Statistically, per capita, Natives represent one of the highest in terms of enlistment in the military so there's a long honorable history. The pow wow will pay tribute to that. It's part of what we are, even long before Europeans made it to this country.''