From Tommy Orange to the Institute of American Indian Arts: Plains Tribes Battle for “Powwow” Terminology in Contemporary America

There is nothing more synonymous with Native American identity than a powwow.  Unfortunately, it’s a term that can be used as racist code for a “meeting” and or it can be used as simulacra in literature.  So how did we get to such an ugly view of the term and practice of powwows?  I sat at a local book club meeting in Tulsa, Oklahoma and we were talking about the ending in Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, and I suddenly realized:  plains tribe people think of something radically different when we hear the word “powwow.”

Kiowa Sharron Ahtone

Tulsa is in northeast Oklahoma and it’s not a plains tribe stronghold.  But we do exist in decent numbers there.  Mostly eastern tribes, like Cherokees and Muscogee (Creeks), have “reservation” boundaries in this part of Oklahoma.  So I’m sitting there listening to what equates to a Baudrillard critique of Orange’s novel, which goes something like this:  everything is a copy of a copy so nothing is authentic.  Pretty bleak, I know.  And this does not reflect my own personal Native experience.  But I’ll have to unpack that in a different post.  The Baudrillard critique made me think about how powwows were popularized.  What was the original source of the copy of the copies?

Powwows originated from Plains tribe culture. On the Southern Plains, Kiowas and Comanches continue to have highly ceremonial and ritualized practices that we refer to as a “powwow” and is an ingrained part of our speech.  We don’t think twice to call a gourd dance a powwow or a naming ceremony a powwow.  Why?  Because many of our rituals were taken and applied to what we know as the modern day powwow.

I attended an intertribal college, Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and I typically connected with other plains tribe people, many of whom came from the Northern Plains, like Lakotas and Mandan/Arikara/Hidatsas.  IAIA is in the Southwest so many of the instructors were Pueblo and Dine.  I remember having a Pueblo instructor who told her class that they could be excused from class for ceremonies on the Pueblos but she wouldn’t let any of her students off for powwows.  I can hear many of you groan.  I know.  This is one of many examples of intertribal misunderstandings that still occur.  This instructor viewed her Pueblo rituals as real and authentic versions of culture, but she didn’t see powwows as the same.

I’ll explain to you how that can happen.  Powwows as we see them in large cities have become about competition and making money.  Many of the biggest powwows in the United States aren’t even organized by Natives. They’re non-Natives making money off Native people.  But back to my point, the gourd dances and naming ceremonies I mentioned above do not have money making elements within them.  They have ritualized practices around giving to help, like if you need money because of a specific hardship.  We have “giving ceremonies” within gourd dances that are in place for Kiowas and Comanches to practice the same rituals we’ve practiced for hundreds of years.  It happens in different forms throughout the dance, but one form we call a blanket dance.

Kiowa Gourd Dance

But the modern day powwows in larger cities don’t have these types of practices in place.  More or less, you show up to compete with other dancers in a specific dance, like fancy shawl, jingle dress, straight, etc., etc.  Whomever wins the competition gets the money, and bragging rights.  It’s fun and many Native people participate.  So when my instructor told her Plains tribe students that their culture wasn’t a culture, she had in mind the commodified version of a powwow.  In my mind, I envisioned a network of traditional Societies coming together to support each other in ritual practices that date back hundreds of years.  Two very different versions of “powwow” went through our minds.  We Plains tribal members were shocked and we pressed the issue and did our best to explain, but this individual had heard someone say, “Powwows aren’t real culture,” and instead of criticize the statement:  She reinforced it.

So when I asked the folks at my book club:  Why would Orange end his book with a shootout at a powwow?  My mind was in this space of ritual, where families arrived to give.  In fact, the gourd dance’s entire structure (from beginning to end) is centered around giving.  Societies give to each other.  Dancers give to the drum.  Everyone gives to those in need.  Every song is sung under the ritual of giving.  A gourd dance, aka powwow, is a back to back giving ceremony.  But certain members of the book club had been trained by someone else to think, “Powwows aren’t culture.”  So killing people at a powwow was okay imagery, or at minimum killing people at a city powwow was somehow justified, because some members of the book club thought Orange was stating that urban Natives weren’t real Natives.  Again, I’ll have to unpack that one in another post.

I’ve heard this from many Cherokees over the years:  “Powwow culture isn’t real culture.”  Since I’m Kiowa and Cherokee and those are the two worlds I grew up moving between, I heard all the intertribal slights from both sides.  But the main reason other tribes choose to go along with the above criticism about powwows has to do with popular media.  Since popular media portrays Natives at our most “authentic” if we’re from a plains tribe, then other tribes attempt to make space by criticizing plains tribe practices.  As a Cherokee, I understand.  It’s annoying to hear the questions about if we lived in tepees and how we migrated with buffalo herds.  Cherokees were mountain agrarian people.  So I get it.  But as a Kiowa, I see how ridiculing our practices only plays into the hands of the oppressor.  It’d be much more accurate to take the time to educate someone so they can educate others.

“So how did we get to such an ugly view of the term and practice of powwows?”

This article is my attempt to educate.  Every tribe is unique and we all have a different language.  The term “powwow” means something different, more traditional, for those of us who inhabit the Southern Plains or Northern Plains of North America.  Our traditional powwows are not centered on competition, but instead we focus on giving and healing, and we have practiced these dances, songs, and rituals for hundreds of years.



(Artwork: Sharron Ahtone.  Other image borrowed from Wikipedia)


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