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These Indian gatherings offer a chance for all people to socialize through song and dance.
Photo: Bruce Rettig, Randa Bishop (below)
Growing up in Fallon, Monty Williams remembers dancing in his first powwow at age eight. Forty-three years later, he explains to me their significance to American Indians. I am amazed by his thoroughness as he gives me—admittedly a novice on the subject—the rundown without so much as stumbling on a word or pausing for breath during our half-hour phone conversation.
Williams, 51, has danced, drummed, judged, sung, even directed powwows, and his vast knowledge of the subject speaks to his experience. His continued participation, however, speaks to something much larger. “Powwows are chances for people to get together and socialize through song and dance,” says Williams, who is Goshute-Shoshone and the executive director of the Nevada Statewide Native American Coalition. “They’re really a place to find safety in the arena and circle.”
Powwows, although most culturally significant to American Indians, offer a sanctuary for people of all cultures (the majority in Nevada are free to attend, Williams points out). Also known as fandangos, these beautiful and inspiring ceremonies bridge past to present and connect generations, keeping culture, language, and legends alive.
There are dozens of annual powwows in Nevada, but for simplicity sake, we focus on two in this article. Both happen during the shelf life of this issue, but more importantly they help demonstrate the differences between the two main types of powwows: competitive and social.
Unlike a lot of Nevada powwows, and nationwide gatherings for that matter, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Sacred Visions Powwow is relatively new. The event was started in 2009, in order to “bring the community together and promote the culture of the Tribe,” according to pyramidlake.us. After two very successful events, the third installment returns to Wadsworth’s Big Bend Ranch, July 22-24.
“The tribe built its arbor (arena)specifically for this event,” Williams says. “It’s a good venue.” Visitors can expect food, arts and crafts vendors, and dancers. A competitive powwow—most Nevada powwows are of this variety, Williams says—such as Sacred Visions can offer purses as large as $20,000. In addition to the open dances, contest dances for a particular style and age group are often held, with the top winners receiving a cash prize.
The Spirit of Wovoka Days Powwow, August 26-28, is held annually in Yerington to celebrate the life and legacy of Wovoka, known as the Paiute Messiah. The event honors the teachings of Wovoka, a Mason Valley resident who had a spiritual vision on New Year’s Day 1890. In that vision, God taught him the secret of the Ghost Dance and told him to bring a life of peace and abundance to his people. “We hold the powwow every year in his honor to remember the things he did here and his teachings,” says Debra Keats, a Paiute-Washoe and powwow chairwoman.
The mostly social powwow is sponsored by the Mason Valley Wind Spirit Dancers, which Keats co-directs. “The Wind Spirit Dancers began 24 years ago,” she says. “We wanted to keep our children dancing and share our culture with the community.” The gathering was inaugurated a few years later.
The down-home family powwow, as Williams refers to it, is free to attend, and all are welcome. “It’s a great place for people to come together, to enjoy the music, and dance,” Keats says. “People can bring a lawn chair and just relax. It’s a great time for two-and-a-half days.” Booths contain arts and crafts and food and drink, and dances honor and memorialize such groups as military veterans.—David Anthony
Going “back to the Wild West days,” Monty Williams says, the Grand Entry is perhaps the most important part of the powwow tradition. Originally, the Grand Entry consisted of a parade through town, but the ritual has for the most part evolved into an elaborate entry into the arbor or arena. A procession of flag bearers, always entering from the East, carries the flags of various entities.
Dancers—men first—appear after other important guests (chiefs, elders, etc.), and the Grand Entry song ends once everyone is in the arena. After a song to honor the flags and what they stand for, a prayer is recited, and the dancing resumes.
Description: Vivid regalia and dramatic movement; highly athletic fancy dancers distinguished by use of a two-bustle design on their regalia.
Legend: This is the original war dance.
Description: Regalia has long, flowing fringe or yarn and designs reminiscent of grass blowing in the wind.
Legend: One story is that there once was a young tribal man who was crippled, but yearned to dance. He put long blades of grass in his belt and moved his legs in such a way that warrior dancers mimicked his style.
Description: Traditional regalia; single eagle bustle is common.
Legend: Meant to simulate the story of a hunt or battle; dancers look for tracks and carry weapons such as hatchets or spears.
Description: More homemade features such as chokers, breastplates, etc.; porcupine hair headdresses or otter skin hats are common. Single otter skin down the full length of back.
Source: Monty Williams
Fancy Shawl (Butterfly Dance)
Description: Brilliant colors; long, usually fringed and decorated shawls; dancers perform rapid spins and elaborate dance steps.
Legend: There was a couple who were together many years. The man was killed, and the woman went into mourning. She eventually came out of her symbolic cocoon like a butterfly.
Jingle Dress (Medicine Dance)
Description: Skirt with 365 small tin tobacco lid cones make noise as dancer moves with light footwork.
Legend: A girl became sick, so her father went to the creator. The spirits told him to make a dress with tobacco lid cones and to pray every day offering tobacco. At the end of the year, they told him to put the healing dress on his daughter to wear.
Description: Traditional regalia of cloth or leather (buckskin), featuring authentic design and materials. Long buckskin fringe from elbow to ankle.
(Buckskin & Cloth)
Description: Regalia similar to Northern Traditional dance, but Southern style of dance has short breastplate and long ribbon running down the full length of back.
All powwow festivals are alcohol and drug free. Please don’t take pictures or use audio or video recording devices during the flag, prayer, or honor songs, and when an individual is honoring a drum through whistle. Guests are asked to stand and remove their hats for certain songs, unless you have an eagle feather in it. It is traditional to show respect to visiting chiefs and elders by deferring to them at virtually all times. Do not crowd around the drummers.
Always ask for permission before making recordings or taking pictures of the dancers in their regalia. Children are welcome to enjoy the event but cannot play in the sacred circle.
Participants are asked to respect the arena director, head dance man, and woman head dancer. If you are unsure who these individuals are, please ask. Follow the master of ceremonies statements during the powwow.—nevadaindianterritory.com
WORTH A CLICK