Explosive Changes in Pow Wows for Urban Natives

Contemporary American Indian pow wows have been undergoing a considerable amount of cultural change.

Among the various aspects examined are pow wows’ social networks — pow wows as an expression of identity, ideas of community, social integration, and the transgression of customary boundaries formally assigned to share meanings about appropriate gendered behaviors, specifically, gender crossing, and the public acknowledgement of gay individuals during urban pow wows. “This new phenomena, the rearticulating of gendered meanings, are put in relation to historical and ethnographic evidence that reports the participation of temporary gender liminal in public dances. For example, “Tribal women would celebrate their husband’s victories holding war trophies or scalps, that included temporary “transvestism,” whereby women donned their husband’s clothes and painted their faces in warrior fashion in their honor” (academic.com). On the basis of such ethnographical evidence, “A new wave of urban gay, lesbian and transgender Native Americans (who collectively call themselves Two-Spirits) has argued its legitimate place in contemporary indigenous pow wow circles.” We have also witnessed religious syncretism or blending between Christianity and Native American religious traditions. At least as early as 2006, Hip Hop dancing has also been invading the sacred circle of Native American dance.

Wakinyan Duuta (Tsuu T’ina) explains, “The concept of pow wow is not traditional by any means. It was introduced in the Buffalo Bill show days. It just got adopted and adapted to fill in a void that allowed a form of cultural co-existence. These displays continued as a way of showing bits of who we are. I believe that tribes adapted this so they can practice ceremonial beliefs under the guise of dance exhibitions. Whoever sees pow wows’ as traditional is not that informed or perhaps they have made it evolve enough to put something sacred into it?”

The social context of urban pow wows is significantly different from traditional pow wows with which they originally sprang. Urban pow wow participants now engage with multiple realities that expose them to rich new lifestyles, innovative role models, and expanded views about Native America. Duuta adds, “I don’t know what pow wows in the east are like, but out west the pow wows have been ever so slowly changing to what is popular. Neon colors, French braids, hip hop fancy dancers, changes to dance styles, even in the so called traditional styles. Bigger seems to be better. The more feathers and bigger the more it seems accepted and favorable to judges. I suppose it has to be dynamic and not static if some form of Native/indigenous/Aboriginal/First Nations discourse is to continue.”

Is our culture becoming more Eurocentric? Have we lost our tradition and bought into the commercialization of pow wows? For example, the pow wow marketplace has evolved into mostly Anglos selling their interpretation of Native American jewelry. It’s all about making money.

The real issues of exploitation, commercialization and how “white” corporate America, that represents 1 percent of the population, uses our culture and identity for their own political advancement (Politician Elizabeth Warren, for example) or to maintain the continued subjugation of our people, in this sense, the selling of trinkets has reduced our sacred objects to commercial product.

Urban pow wows are not only the most visual, but the most carnivalized of cultural difference integrated into the larger urban pow wow population. There publicized in the “white” press to spectators who don’t know the cultural significance or history of the Native participants, and see it as merely entertainment, and don’t understand the differences between the plurality (red, black, white, brown) among us.

Black/brown Indians are people of mixed racial heritage, who have strong ties to Native American culture, as do white Indians. Many Indigenous peoples of the Eastern Woodlands, such as the Narragansett, Pequot, Lumbee and Cherokee have a significant number of African ancestors, and dance in celebration of their total being. Spectators ignorant of this history cannot comprehend the diversity or the insult to the Native people when they hold fast to the myth of the “Hollywood Indian” or “noble savage” image. The sad part is, stereotypes can also become self-perpetuating when stereotyped individuals are made to feel self-conscious or inadequate. In other words, we don’t “look” Indian, so we dress Indian. Lorraine Baker (Nottoway-E. Pequot) asserts, “We have been made to feel ashamed of our “mixed-race” heritage. We are looking for acceptance in a now ‘created ethnicity’ trying to prove what we are.” She continues, “At the pow wow I am discriminated against by the degree of my skin color (White, Indian and Black) by my own people.” Others have complained of similar treatment.

Hip Hop, a cultural movement that formed during the late 1960s among African Americans and Latino youth, featuring rap with electronic rhythms, has been a voice for oppressed people, a method of subverting the dominant culture and a revolutionary communication process in song and dance. Many have said Hip Hop attracts Indian youth to the circle, while others have said Hip Hop dancing is yet another layer of assimilation to peel back and that Native culture has already suffered enough loss and dilution. The Hip Hop element in the circle has now given rise to a new term, “ghetto pow wow.” Will the assimilation through total immersion of other cultures/ideas be our end? Growth of culture is import, but you can’t assimilate to the point where everything of the traditional culture is gone: it is genocide, ethnocide, linguiside, and destruction at the expense of the original cultures.

The one thing that has been a constant component has been the yearly reunion of family.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.