Skip to main content

Pow wow in the classroom

The academic value of Indian social dancing

ELON, N.C. - Pow wow dance styles, regalia and music are continuously evolving. Through selective adaptation, they have become celebrations of cultural preservation and innovation. Additionally, the inclusion of new influences and concepts in Indian social dancing exemplifies the ways Indian communities themselves have evolved for survival. For that reason, a growing number of universities and colleges now offer classes in pow wow culture.

Clyde Ellis, professor of history at Elon University, has written extensively about pow wow culture. He has produced a book on historic and contemporary Indian dance culture, titled ''A Dancing People: Powwow Culture on the Southern Plains'' (2003), and edited ''Powwow'' (2005), a collection of essays. He has also written numerous journal articles on the topic.

During the early reservation era, Indian agents - fearing that large congregations might inspire uprising among tribes - strictly regulated Indian gatherings. Dances and social gatherings were permitted only on certain occasions such as the Fourth of July. On these sanctioned occasions, dancers began to engage in a more demonstrative form of dancing - allowing them to practice and preserve historic dances for future generations without raising suspicion of rebellion in the process.

''Beginning in the 1880s, federal officials vigorously attempted to restrict dances and every other kind of 'traditional' gathering since dances were perceived as contradictory to the assimilation program that lay at the core of federal Indian policy. Since officials were convinced that dancing encouraged 'uncivilized' behavior, the Office of Indian Affairs attempted to restrict virtually every kind of dance gathering that it was aware of,'' Ellis explained.

''Indian Agents compiled blacklists against the so-called 'dance crowd,' withholding rations or annuities from those who refused to comply with federal directives. Ironically, because the government never enacted statutory acts, it could not declare dancing illegal per se. As a result, once Indians were declared citizens and accepted allotments, they could often simply ignore pressure to stop dancing.''

Ellis also said that modification and embellishment of the dances in the early decades of the 20th century actually served to make them more popular.

''Although the traditional moorings that had previously shaped much of the dance culture were restricted, dancing societies managed to meet to dance and remember ritually and historically important ideals. As a result, certain aspects of the dances began to shift - sometimes in very dramatic ways. Rather than losing adherents, however, once the dances became more performative and public, and in some cases more secular, they gained adherents.''

Wild West shows, exhibitions of Indian dancing at fairs, and other performance venues, also had an enormous influence on pow wow evolution. According to Ellis, while white Americans had long regarded Indian dancing as dangerous and uncivilized, Wild West shows piqued the public's interest in the dances, advertising them as rare glimpses of exotic Indian culture. Yet, Ellis contends that in Buffalo Bill Cody's hands, the Indians he employed were intended to represent a worthy, colorful, yet ultimately powerless people.

''The Wild West Show was a tradition begun by Buffalo Bill Cody and taken up by as many as 50 imitators by the 1910s. Cody saw his show as a way to expose modern audiences to what he regarded as a series of truly formative American experiences associated with the frontier - including the defeat and control of the Plains tribes,'' Ellis said.

''Cody's Indian performances were highlighted by dances and other 'traditional' activities designed to demonstrate a colorful and attractive slice of life. Unfortunately, these shows misled and misinformed the public by suggesting that what audiences were seeing were the last vestiges of vanishing cultures and primitive practices.''

Dancing for appreciative audiences also influenced the style of dancing and regalia worn by the dancers. The grand entries and contests of the Wild West shows were later adopted and modified for use in the emerging rituals of the pow wow of the era, adding to the excitement and popularity of public dancing.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

''Cody paid the highest salaries to arena performers with the best dance regalia and the most entertaining steps,'' Ellis said. ''These practices no doubt found their way back to Indian communities.''

Official federal suppression of dancing ended in 1934 when Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier spearheaded the Indian Reorganization Act, a sweeping reversal of federal policy that ended the government's century-long commitment to coercive assimilation.

Pow wow dancing, however, continued to evolve as traditional dances came to reflect the changing experiences of contemporary American Indians.

''Much dance culture was originally associated with martial bravery, service and sacrifice. The departure and return of servicemen in the world wars began to have a profound effect on the shape of dancing. In many cases, it led to the revival or strengthening of traditional warrior societies; while in others, it helped to influence the creation of new dances.

''Osage Soldier dancing is an example of a form of dancing that emerged in the 1920s as a way to commemorate the World War I service of Osage men and women. To this day, veterans enjoy special status and prominence at pow wows - a clear reflection of traditional values of service and sacrifice.''

Pow wow gatherings also began to diversify around this time.

''In addition to large annual encampments like the Ponca or Sac and Fox pow wows, smaller gatherings sponsored by families, organizations or communities became increasingly common. Pow wows are now used to commemorate every kind of special occasion in Indian country - from birthdays to graduations to marriages.''

Furthermore, throughout the post-war years, urban pow wows became familiar and welcomed cultural gatherings that helped to ease the anxieties of newcomers far from home. This was especially true for the more than 100,000 relocated Indians whom the Federal Urban Relocation Program transported from reservations to cities between 1950 and 1970. In Indian centers across the nation, pow wow clubs sprang up as the members of newly emerging urban Indian community struggled to define themselves as cultural ambassadors in the new environment. Today, urban pow wows reflect the great intertribal diversity of their communities.

Pow wow music has also evolved and is often analyzed as a sub-genre of ethnomusicology courses. Ellis pointed out that while historic songs are still remembered and sung, pow wow music also reflects new influences and ideas in pow wow culture.

''Between the world wars, a number of tribes composed flag songs to commemorate and memorialize the service of Indians in the military. The wars influenced other song genres as well. In the Kiowa community, for example, songs called 'War Mother Songs' emerged during World War II to express appreciation for the service and sacrifice of Kiowas in Europe and in the Pacific. Veterans' songs continue to be composed in response to recent conflicts such as Vietnam, Desert Storm, and the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.''

Ellis concluded that pow wows are useful for study for a variety of reasons.

''On one hand, they tell us a great deal about how contemporary Indian communities express and celebrate important values and ideals. Whether as events hosted by families, communities, tribes or universities, pow wows help us understand the continuing importance of kinship ties, the public affirmation of service and the memory of important events.

''On the other hand, because pow wow culture is deeply rooted in historic practices, they're extremely important examples of how tradition and history are valued, celebrated and maintained in Indian communities.''