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The music of the powwow

| Rebecca Hom

The first thing I hear walking into Zorn Arena Saturday afternoon is the beating of a drum. It’s a strong, steady sound echoing throughout the gymnasium. It’s a pulse that takes over your body, and you are suddenly conscious that your own heart beats along in perfect rhythm. The next thing I hear is the voices of the men singing around the drum and the jingling of the medicine dresses as women dance around the circle. As I look around I see men, women and children dressed in traditional regalia, a mirage of feathers, ribbons and bright colors scattered all around me. The emcee is standing on a podium announcing the dancers as they move around the circle together. People are talking and laughing together listening to the music. Powwows are musical, social gatherings that use the drum, dancing and singing to preserve, celebrate and teach Native American culture.

The powwow always begins with the grand entry. The eagle staff is carried around the circle followed by the U.S. flag, the Canadian flag and other tribal flags. The next in line are those being honored, often members of the military, being recognized for their service in fighting for our country. The order of the grand entry is a very important element of the powwow. Men enter first, followed by women, young boys and young girls. Each dancer displays his or her outfit and shows off their specialty dance, giving the onlookers a taste of upcoming performances and what they may expect to see later on. Men and women have distinct but separate roles to follow. For example, men are allowed to drum and sing, while women only perform in a medicine dress. Watching the participants, you can see that although they have individual tasks and purposes, they support one another, establishing unity and working together as one.

Music sung at the powwow is very distinguishable, and I was able to identify the musical structure of each song. I could hear the four push-ups, consisting of the chorus and the verse, which are repeated at least four times. It begins with the lead singer who introduces the piece to the group. They are then joined by a second singer who varies the song slightly before the lead finishes. The rest of the group joins in and a change in the drumbeat indicates the end of the chorus, usually initiated by several strong accent beats. This identifies the start of the next verse and the pattern begins once again.

The dancers respond to the music with purpose and pride, dancing in perfect rhythm around and around the circle, always moving forward. The shawls of the women’s fancy outfits fly around the circle. The grass dancers’ ribbons bounce and flow with the twists and movements of the dancers, and the men’s fancy dance is full of power and excitement. All dances contribute to the inclusive dance style of the powwow.

A wonderful aspect of a powwow is the inclusivity it inspires. To achieve this, there are multiple songs within the powwow called intertribals that are meant to reach out to the audience. The emcee makes an announcement that people watching the powwow are encouraged and welcome to participate in dancing around the circle. This includes any person who would like to join, whether you are part of the powwow or an onlooker dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

My attendance at the powwow was an inspiring experience that I have learned much from. I was truly moved by the pride and passion of the culture exhibited, as well as the traditions I had the chance to participate in. Music is an essential part of most cultures, and the powwow utilizes music and dance to educate others while expressing Native American culture, heritage, beliefs and customs.