The Washington Post
At U-md.’s Native American powwow, expect dancing, singing and a drum
There’s a Native American powwow Saturday at the University of Maryland in College Park. Between 300 to 500 people — both Native and non-native — are expected to attend the event.
As the only Native American reporter in The Washington Post newsroom, I’ ll fill you in on what to know and expect about powwows, along with my friend Dennis Zotigh, who’s an American Indian powwow historian and a cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
I’m an enrolled member of the Haliwa-saponi tribe of North Carolina, and Zotigh is Kiowa/ Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo/isante Dakota Indian. He’s also the author of the book “Moving History: Evolution of the Powwow,” and on Saturday, he’ll be the master of ceremonies at the University of Maryland powwow.
If you plan to go to the powwow, here’s what to expect.
What is a powwow?
It’s a gathering of Native American people from different tribes. Zotigh calls it a “celebration of being Native.”
Many people wrongly think most Indians live on reservations. Roughly 70 percent of American Indians live away from their communities, so powwows bring together Indigenous people from different tribes.
Picture Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa all rolled into one: That’s a powwow. It’s getting together with people and celebrating who you are and where you come from.
What will I see?
Dancing and singing. And you’ll hear a drum.
For many Natives, the drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Dancers move to the beat of the drum. You’ll see various styles of dancing, including the grass, fancy, traditional and jingle. And you’ll hear distinct styles of singing, based on where a drum group is from: Northern is usually at a higher pitch, and Southern is often lower. The songs have meanings, and some are old and have long traditions, while others are more contemporary.
There are also vendors selling their artwork and crafts.
What do the dances mean?
Just as the songs have meanings, so do the dances.
The jingle dress dance came from a legend among tribes in the Great Lakes of the United States and Canada — the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe and Chippewa. The legend is about a sick girl who was healed when she heard the sound of the metal cones that are sewn on the dress, according to Zotigh. For Ojibwe and Chippewas, it’s considered a medicine dress dance because it involves healing.
The grass dance is done by boys and men, traditionally in the Northern Great Plains, according to Zotigh. Warriors once collected scalps, which were considered the spoils of war. That tradition evolved into collecting tufts of grass, which were put in belts or moccasins. Now, yarn or leather fringe is more commonly used to symbolize the grass.
Warriors were also traditionally in charge of finding spots for ceremonies and dancing, Zotigh said. They would bless the grounds by stomping down the tall buffalo grass so that a ceremony could take place.
How long have powwows been held?
Most modern-day powwows started in the early 19th century.
Historically, tribes didn’t have powwows because they lived too far apart from one another.
In many cases, they were enemies and “wouldn’t be caught dancing in another person’s powwow,” Zotigh said.
But after World War I, as many Native American veterans returned home, powwows became more common and were a way to honor warriors and Native American culture.
Most tribes have a set weekend to hold their annual event, and there are often several powwows happening across the country on any given weekend. The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque is considered the largest powwow in the country with more than 70,000 attendees.
Can you take photos?
Yes, but listen to the master of ceremonies if there’s a special dance or song where no photography is allowed: They’ll announce that. If you stop a dancer outside of the arena to take their picture up close, ask if they mind — usually they don’t.
The powwow at the university of Maryland in College Park will be held Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. inside the adele H. Stamp Student union. The grand entry, when dancers officially enter the arena, will kick off at 1 p.m. The event is being organized by the native american and indigenous Student union and the office of Multicultural involvement and Community advocacy.