Powwows are celebrations that showcase Aboriginal music, dances, dance apparel, food and crafts. Commonly hosted by First Nations communities (either on reserve or in urban settings), Métis and Inuit also participate in contemporary powwows, and smaller powwows are hosted by educational institutions. Powwows promote cultural pride, respect and health for young and old in an inclusive setting; drugs and alcohol are forbidden on the powwow grounds. Powwows serve an important role in many Indigenous peoples' lives as a forum to visit family and friends, and to celebrate their cultural heritage, while also serving as a site for cross-cultural sharing with non-Indigenous attendees and participants.
Powwows typically take place on reserves and in urban centres across Canada during summer weekends. Contemporary powwows originated on the Great Plains during the late 19th century and, since the 1950s, have been growing in size, number and popularity. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike attend, and many opportunities exist for visitors to learn about, and increase their awareness of, traditional and contemporary Aboriginal life and culture.
The two main types of powwows are traditional and competition, the primary difference being that competition powwow dancers (and often the musicians) compete for cash prizes. Both types of powwow have ceremonial and social elements, and both serve to foster pride among Indigenous peoples, and preserve and enrich traditions and culture.
The physical landscape of a powwow typically involves a series of concentric circles with the drums and musicians located within the innermost section of the circle, and the dancers, audiences and vendors emanating from the centre. To many Aboriginal peoples these circles represent the centrality of the drum to their worldview; the drum represents the heartbeat of Mother Earth, illustrating the close connection of Aboriginal peoples to the land. Common features of powwows are the distinctive music, dances and dance apparel of the participants (see Aboriginal Art).
The main music heard at powwows is typically performed by a group of four to twelve men who sit in a circle around a large bass drum (hand-made or commercial). While striking the drum in unison to fixed rhythmic patterns, the men sing songs initiated by a single singer who is subsequently joined by the others. Over the course of a song that begins at the upper end of the vocal register, the pitch level falls, and during the song's conclusion the lead singer repeats the song. Songs are usually repeated four times and last approximately five minutes. Women's participation in powwow music is often restricted to supportive roles such as backup singers. The women stand behind the men as they join the singing (an octave higher) at specific places in each song statement. Although these gender conventions are common at powwows, all-female drum groups and mixed groups of men and women together have emerged and gained acceptance in some regions of North America.
The style of dance performed at powwows is directly related to the musical features of the songs performed, often based on the drum patterns of the songs and dancers. Dancers are grouped by gender and dress in colourful, specialized outfits, each associated with a specific style of dance. Men's dance categories include Traditional, Grass and Fancy. Women's dance categories include Traditional, Jingle Dress and Fancy Shawl. Dancing is primarily an individual activity with each participant demonstrating his or her interpretation of the dance as he or she circles the dance area in a clockwise direction. There are some specialized dances that are often showcased at powwows, such as the hoop dance, and some powwows will feature local nation-specific music as exhibition dances or competitions.
Powwows Across North America
Today, powwows typically begin with a Grand Entry. Dignitaries, carrying flags representing Canada, the United States and the hosting First Nations, as well as eagle staffs and various other flags (e.g. the POW/MIA flag, the Mohawk Warrior Flag), enter the dance area followed by all the participating dancers. Once all the dancers have entered the arbor, or dance area (usually in order of dance category and age), a Flag Song (the anthem for the hosting Nation) and Veterans' Song (to commemorate all war veterans) are sung. Next are an invocation, or prayer, and the posting of the flags, followed by greetings from local leaders.
Inter-tribal dances (social dances where all people are welcome to participate) alternate with dance exhibitions, contests and special events that commemorate or celebrate people through Giveaways and Healing Dances. Powwow activities continue throughout the weekend, with programming throughout the day and evening. Music and dancing conclude each segment of the powwow's closing processions.
Although commonalities exist within North American powwow dances and music, regional variations are evident in the style of dance as well as in the inclusion of Nation-specific dances, such as the Haudenosaunee Smoke Dance and the Prairie Chicken Dance of the Canadian Prairie Nations (see Aboriginal People: Plains). In addition to individual dances, the most common dances at powwows are the social couples' dances such as the Owl Dance and the Friendship Dance, during which couples participate in a follow-the-leader fashion, and the Round Dances, in which all the participants join hands and circle the dance areas facing the centre of the dance circle.
Another important aspect of powwow is the opportunity to buy traditional Aboriginal food, arts and crafts. Many people camp along the perimeter of the powwow grounds, socializing late into the night after the powwow dancing has ended. Because of the powwow’s role in promoting cultural pride, respect and health for all, drugs and alcohol are forbidden on the powwow grounds.