This Saturday, I went to the Austin Powwow. Talking to people about it, I was surprised at the number of folks who'd never been to a powwow - so I figured it would be worth writing about!
The Austin Powwow is one of the largest single-day powwows in the country (most powwows I know of last between one and three days). People come from all over to participate in the powwow, whether as dancers, drummers, craftspeople, or as part of the audience.
One of the central elements of any powwow is the dancing. There are a variety of different dances - some are competitive, which means that only the registered dancers are allowed to participate, others are social, which are open to non-competitors. (Audience members who are unfamiliar with powwows, however, should not join dances unless invited to do so by the announcer.) At the Austin powwow, as with many larger gatherings, most of the dances were intertribal; if you go to smaller powwows, and especially to community events that include dancing but aren't called powwows (like the Feast Days in the Southwest), you'll see a lot more tribal dances, many of which have sacred meanings and are closely connected with traditional rituals.
The competitive dances are lots of fun to watch, and they're the flashiest part of the powwow. The agility and strength of the dancers is breathtaking, and even if you don't know exactly what the key elements of each dance are, you'll get to see some awe-inspiring dancing. There are competitions for all age groups, from the "tiny tots" to adults. The kids are amazing, and the ones dancing in the under-five age group are just adorable. Even the littlest ones are skilled, but what's most impressive to me is their focus. They're out there in front of an audience of thousands, these kids, and they seem to be able to shut it out and dance. The outfits are pretty spectacular too, and are usually designed to show off the movements of the dance.
Among the non-competitive dances are honoring ceremonies, often for veterans but also for other members of the community. Dancers give money to the person being honored, and more than collecting money for people who may need it, it's a powerful show of community support. The community demonstrates their commitment to each individual, on both a material and on an spiritual level. These dances are much less spectacular as far as the physical ability they require, but they're powerful to watch.
But dancing isn't the only reason to go to powwows. There's also the food - mmm, the food . There's usually a food court, with a whole bunch of food stands, a lot of which are mom-and-pop operations, folks who drive in with a propane stove and coolers full of frybread dough or mutton. Depending on where the powwow is, there may be some regional variations, but one thing you can always rely on is that there's frybread.
Frybread is one of the staple foods of powwows, and for good reason. As you can guess, it's fried bread; a dough of flour, baking powder and milk, fried in oil until the dough puffs up and turns golden on the outside. You can eat it plain, with honey or powdered sugar, with beans and taco fixings on top, or as a side with other dishes. There are different stories about the origins of frybread, which is now about as pantribal a delicacy as you'll be able to find. Luci Tapahonso, in her brilliant, breathtaking poem "In 1864," says that for the Dine (Navajo),
Frybread is popularly associated with the Navajo, but other tribes had similar foods. There's a Creek story about the fox and the frybread, in which frybread is made with acorn flour and wild honey; the Chickasaw nation provides a recipe which also uses eggs; and there is an Alaskan version in which the dough is rolled into balls.
And then of course there's the audience. There's no "characteristic" powwow attendee. There are lots of families, and while the audience is often majority Native American, there are also plenty of non-Native people. The atmosphere is friendly and relaxed; people chat amongst themselves and socialize, wander in and out, look at the crafts booths or go grab some frybread and coffee. Attention is paid to what's going on in the dance area, but much like in the stands at a baseball game, it's also about having fun with the people around you. With people constantly arriving, leaving, greeting old friends, and meeting new people, the audience is constantly in motion, just like at a big family gathering.
Living in Texas, there aren't that many powwows in my area. Still, there are some within driving distance, and this weekend's powwow has reminded me that a good powwow is worth the drive. So if you've never been to a powwow - and even if you have - next time there's a powwow in your area, give it a go. Have some frybread, watch some dances, and enjoy the whole experience that makes up a powwow.
4. November 2002
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