Hundreds of American Indians from across the United States and Canada were in Washington, D.C., this past weekend (8/12-14) for the National Powwow, a cultural exhibition sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian. Dressed in colorful traditional outfits, dancers competed for thousands of dollars in prize money.
But for participants like Mary and Beaushee Wildcat, the three-day event was about far more than money. They came halfway across the country from Oklahoma to join in the National Powwow and say dancing at powwows is "their lifestyle." "We grew up in it," says Beaushee, a Pawnee. In fact, he and his wife both say they've been dancing at these events since they were small children. And that's where they met 5 years ago. Now they're making sure their 1-year-old son, Lesharo, grows up in the tradition as well.
"We try to go every weekend," says Mary, an Osage. Every weekend there are a number of powwows to choose from. This past weekend, one powwow calendar listed 20 different powwows taking place in addition to the National Powwow.
Beaushee Wildcat says they have made many close friends that they look forward to seeing each weekend at a different powwow. "We know so many people, and we always go to the same powwows," he says. "Not only do we know people from Oklahoma. We know people from all different parts of the country. We're so close to different people from different states. They would take us into their homes, just like we would them."
Mary Wildcat says the National Powwow is more than just an opportunity to see old friend. "It's special, because there are non-native people [who've come to watch] who may have never seen American Indians before." Mike Richardson of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe of North Carolina, agrees. "There are a lot of people here who don't understand the differences in the tribes," he says. " All they see is Indian and don't understand that there are over 500 different tribes, with over 250 different languages. The cultures are a little bit different. There are similarities but we are very unique among the different tribes. And we know that, but most other people don't know that."
But visitors to a powwow won't see all of the diversity of American Indians. While the gatherings attract dancers from tribes across North America, the modern powwow tradition was born on America's vast central Plains. The dances - and songs - performed at powwows originated with Plains tribes like the Kiowa, the Osage, the Comanche and Crow. And while some of the dancers dress in more traditional deerskin leggings and shirts or dresses decorated with beads and feathers or shells, others wear outfits - or regalia - made from shiny modern fabrics adorned with neon colored yarn.
"These powwows are really not… It's certainly fun, but that's not the way of life that is important for me to pass on. These are social events. They're secular," says Peggy Big Eagle, who came from Tokawa, Oklahoma to attend the powwow. Janet Helms, her daughter, agrees. "This was a fun event, but I much more enjoy being outside in 100 degrees (38 degrees, Celsius) and being hot and sweaty and in a smaller group at home," she says.
Peggy Big Eagle says powwows back home in Oklahoma are different in many ways. "This being a contest powwow, and being in Washington D.C., it's going to be lots of tribes," she says. "But a real powwow to us in Oklahoma is one tribe, their songs. It's open to the public, but it's to celebrate themselves. That's what powwow means to us."
As for making a statement by being in the Nation's Capitol, Peggy Big Eagle - who calls herself a former activist from the 1960s - says there is no more significance to the National Powwow than any other, large, intertribal gathering. "Times have changed," she says, noting that many American Indians are no longer looking to the government to solve their problems. Many are doing it themselves with money earned from gaming.
So while some of those participating in the National Powwow saw the event as an extension of the National Museum of the American Indian, and an opportunity to say "we are still here and growing stronger," most were content to dance, socialize, and maybe do a little sightseeing while here in Washington.