The traditions behind a Pow-Wow
There is nothing quite as invigorating to Samantha Hunter as the jingle dress dance. She slips on a dress that she made by hand. It is flashy, covered in jingles and sequins. She slips the eagle plumes that her father gave her into her hair. They are an honor to wear, she says. She grabs her eagle-tail fan; now she is ready to dance.
She joins a group of more than 30 other jingle dress dancers down in an arena, each of them wearing 200 to 400 jingles on the bottoms of their dresses, and they start to move.
“All you can hear is the music and the jingles,” she says. “There are whole crowds of people, but you don’t even see them.”
Hunter, who is originally from Bylas, has been a pow-wow dancer for the last 12 to 13 years. Most recently, she picked up jingle dancing, which originated from the Ojibwa tribe. It is called the healing dance. If someone was sick, they would often ask a jingle dress dancer to dance for them.
This is just one of many dance forms featured in a pow-wow. Pow-wows (originally called “pau-waus”) are intertribal social events that draw Native American tribes from across the country. Singing, dancing and drumming are the highlights of the event, as cultural traditions are exchanged and honored. Performers wear ornate regalia and perform in a large arena. Dancing competitions are usually held.
Pow-wows have a long history, though their exact beginnings are unclear. Hunter says that the Sioux held pow-wows for entertainment, and started adding prizes to them. Then they got other tribes to participate.
Hunter grew up going to pow-wows with her family. Intrigued by the dresses and the dances, she eventually started dancing in them herself. She was on the pow-wow trail for some time, traveling as far as Connecticut, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Canada to perform in different pow-wows.
She started out dancing traditional dances. These are danced at a slower pace, and the singer sings in a deep voice. The ladies wear buckskin dresses, with a fringe that sways gracefully. They dance with a slight bow in their posture to honor the drum beat as they dance.
“I liked it, the songs were beautiful,” she recalls.
But four years ago, she found a dance she enjoyed even more: jingle dress dancing. Instead of always wearing buckskin dresses, she could make as many different dresses to wear as she pleased.
“I wanted to make up my dresses and fancy them,” she says, because, after all, “You only make what you love.”
She learned how to beadwork and sew. Depending on how detailed her dress is, it can take two days to two weeks to make it.
Beyond the dress-making, there are other reasons to look forward to a pow-wow. The grand entry is perhaps the most exciting part. That is when all the dancers come out into the arena dressed in their best, and show off, Hunter says. There is someone taking down each dancer’s number. At the end of the pow-wow, the numbers are added up and prizes are given.
“It’s a lot of fun for me and my husband, we get to travel and know the other dancers,” she says. “I can’t wait to do it again.”
“The music alone is very soothing,” she adds. “I can’t explain it. It’s food for the soul, I guess you could say.”
Jenn Walker began writing for Globe Miami Times in 2012 and has been a contributor ever since. Her work has also appeared in Submerge Magazine, Sacramento Press, Sacramento News & Review and California Health Report. She currently teaches Honors English at High Desert Middle School and mentors Globe School District’s robotics team.