When I was a young girl in the 1960s, I remember going to social pow wows on the Crow Reservation. I don't remember there being any dance contests, grand entries, or point systems.
After my family moved back to the Flathead Reservation, we went to the 4th of July pow wow every summer. By the early 1970s, dance contests had become routine. The groups of dancers would be called out by gender and age, and the judges would select the winners from the groups. Most of the time, everyone could enjoy intertribal dancing and round dancing and sometimes there was hoop dancing. Tony Brown (Lakota/Salish), as a five-year old, was a very accomplished hoop dancer.
By the late 1970s, dance contests had become the core of the war dancing. Dancers were judged on how much they participated in the entire pow wow, in addition to their exhibition of dancing in their category. Point systems were developed that included grand entries, exhibitions and "spot-checks." This caused dancers to participate whether they wanted to or not. I have seen many dancers who walk around with only part of their regalia and they only dance when it's grand entry, exhibition or contest.
By the 1980s, dance contest "specials" came about. These were dance contests sponsored by individuals or families such as men's traditional, women's fancy, etc., that were held in addition to the regular sponsored contests. "Special" is an accurate term for these contests because often it appears that dancers are chosen not necessarily for their dancing ability. The "special" was a way to honor dancers who might not ordinarily be selected as winners.
By the late 1980s, the "mega pow wow" was emerging. The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, the Denver March Pow wow, the Mashantucket Pequot's Schemitzun and the Coeur d'Alene's Julyamsh are the forerunners of today's mega pow wow. Cash prizes for adult dance contests were four figures. Drum contests emerged with five figure prizes. The mega pow wows broke a long-standing tradition: Everyone, even dancers and drummers, has to pay to get into the pow wow.
Having been both a participant and an organizer of various pow wows for the last twenty years, I'm a little disillusioned by all the changes. Our pow wows long ago were sponsored entirely by individuals and everyone came because of the social aspects. Being together with family and friends was the emphasis. In today's times, attendance at pow wows is based on "Who's the host drum?" "Who's the MC?" "How much is the prize money?" "Is there a special contest for this or that category?" Pow wows are rated on how many drum groups attended, how many dancers registered, and so on. Quantity takes precedence over quality.
Now I'll admit that things can't always stay the same, and some changes are for the better. But there has to be a medium between tradition and outright greed. For example, I've seen dance contestants cheating. They do this by having other people wear their outfit and contestant number, lying to the pow wow committee about why they were late for grand entry or missed a contest round, and lying about their age and registering in categories for which they weren't eligible. This dishonest behavior is all the more outrageous when it is children doing it with the knowledge of their parents.
Is winning the money so important that a person has to cheat? Is taking part in the pow wow a chore and not a joy?
My children have been dancing since they were infants. They usually compete in contests, and sometimes they place. I always remind them that they need to be thankful that they can dance, that they are well enough to be attending the pow wow, and that they should be proud to be carrying on a part of their culture and traditions. All of this is more important than winning any contest for any amount of money.
At some of the mega pow wows, people have to show a Tribal ID and a Social Security card to register in the contests. This sounds extreme, but it's an attempt to curtail the improprieties described above. Unfortunately, it just bears out how far from tradition the pow wow may have come.
As a child, my parents taught me that an Indian's word was truthful and as an Indian person, I needed to live up to that standard. Ask yourself if you value honesty and truthfulness in the tradition of your ancestors, and if you have taught this to your children.