Intellectualizing the Pow Wow: Academic Tome Tells All

The book is dense, but as such it illuminates the similarities of pow wows and their dances worldwide

Indigenous Dance and Dancing Indian: Contested Representation in the Global Era (University Press of Colorado, 2012), by Matthew Krystal, is an über-academic tome that only a scholar or hard-core fan will be able to get through. But it accomplishes something that few other books have done previously: It examines the parallels among the different dances of Indigenous Peoples worldwide.

Certainly, at $70 retail, it is more a reference tome than a book that you curl up with in your favorite chair. This scholarly overview of indigenous dance completely intellectualizes every aspect of its subject. Still, it may yet provide insight into what is understood by many dancers intuitively—namely, the perspectives that an outsider can bring to an analysis of the subject. Significantly, no Native affiliation is listed on the book jacket for its author, an assistant professor of anthropology at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois.

The book surveys K’iche’ Maya traditional dance, folkloric dance, and the role of dance in sports, myth and identification with iconic figures. Chapter Five offers an exhaustive study of pow wow origins, including its evolution as a way to preserve ancient aboriginal dances during the era of colonization.

The fifth chapter also gives an overview that, although dense, sheds light on how and why pow wows and dances are as they are. It not only compares and contrasts pow wows from different regions of the U.S. but also draws parallels between U.S. and international dances, demonstrating the commonalities of seemingly disparate peoples.

“With its intense socializing, food and calendric (often annual) scheduling, pow wow is a bit like the Guatemalan indigenous feria, but with dancing more central,” Krystal writes. “Also like feria, pow wow has cultural, economic and political dimensions. Dancers in both events face the challenges that come with being indigenous in a society dominated by nonindigenous Others. Histories of genocide and ethnocide must continue to be overcome, and the twin pillars of indigenous survival—common culture and experience and the social solidarity born from them—are constructed at pow wow and feria.”

A mouthful indeed, and one that gives a sense of how this information-packed book reads.