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      Central Iowa First Nations: Powwow
the people powwwows drum & song dance
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Image of Meskwaki Chief Poweshiek, ca. 1830, from a 19th Century engraving
Native Americans in Central IowaImage of The Meskwaki Tribal Council, from a 19th Century Photo

Contemporary American Indians live and work in Iowa and continue to practice their cultural traditions. As with other groups, these traditions have changed as Indians moved in and out of traditional environments. Since Iowa represents a transitional area that historically includes Woodlands and Plains Indians, there has been diverse tribal representation in the state. In central Iowa today, there are Indians from the Diné (Navaho), Lakota (Sioux), Meskwaki, Ho-Chunk (Winnebago of Wisconsin), Kiowa/Comanche, and Ojibwe tribes, among others. While there are individual Indians living throughout the state, the only tribally owned lands in Iowa are the Omaha and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska's reservation, which reaches into western Iowa, and the Meskwaki Settlement in Tama. TOP

Image of Everett Kapayou, Meskwaki elderPowwows
"There are ceremonies for everything that the Indian does. The Indian, when he is born or she is born, have a ceremony for giving the little baby a name; and in the summer when you plant; and when some grow, then you have a ceremony before you partake of what you grew; you don't partake of it before." — Everett Kapayou, Meskwaki elder

Image of Meskwaki DancersPowwows are ceremonial gatherings for individual tribes or for a mixture of tribes and sometimes include a public component for non-Indians. Historically, such events marked seasonal changes and occurred when hunting and agricultural work was at a lull. They provided a time to come together, socialize, renew old friendships, celebrate, and pass on Indian heritage and traditions. Today, many powwows still occur at these seasonal times, as well as to honor a particular person.

Powwows commence before most people arrive with a smudging ceremony to create a sacred space or circle within which dancers and drum groups perform. Once all is ready, powwows start with an opening ceremony and include food, music, dance, drum, song, talk, and gift exchanging among members. There is frequently a craft and food sales component, especially for public powwows.

A master of ceremonies begins the powwow with an invocation, which is followed by a variety of dances, about which the MC provides commentary. The job of the master of ceremonies is to keep things moving, to explain what is going on, announce each song, and to fill in the empty spaces. Good MCs know a variety of jokes; they can speak knowledgeably about each song and the meaning of dancers' costume components, or regalia.    TOP

Image of Meskwaki Drum, the "Coonhunters," led by lead singer Larry LasleeDrum & Song
The drum, which refers to the actual instrument as well as to the men who play it, is the ritual center of the powwow and represents the heartbeat of First Nations people. Five to seven men, called singers, beat the drum (approximately five feet in diameter). They perform a variety of songs to accompany the dancers and also sing and drum between dances.

Image of Roach, a decorative beaded hairpiece and a part of traditional regalia for womenDrum songs range from religious to war to social. Members of different tribes share their songs, sometimes changing them so that all present can join in. As with any living tradition, powwow songs continue to change. Some songs are still sung in native languages, while others are newly composed but in the same style as the old songs. Over time, "vocables" (sung sounds) came into being to replace the words of the old songs. Some songs consist entirely of vocables and no words.    TOP

Image of Grand Entry at the Meskwaki Powwow in TamaDance
Powwows include a variety of dances (referred to as songs), the choice depending upon the organizers and who is involved. The Grand Entry (a circular procession of all dancers) followed by the Flag Song traditionally open a powwow. Veterans are honored by carrying the flags, which usually include the U.S. flag, tribal flags, POW flag, and eagle staffs of various tribes present. Participants sing the Flag Song, or Indian National Anthem, when the American flag is raised or lowered. It is customary for all present to stand and remove hats during the singing of this song, which is not for dancing.

During the course of a powwow, the Head Dancers and MC provide the cues for participants. The Head Man and Head Woman Dancers start each song or set of songs. While there are Round Dances or Victory Dances when anyone present is invited to dance, some songs are just for Indians who are eligible to participate. For instance, only veterans are allowed to dance some veterans' songs and specific dances like the Grass Song or Field Dance.    TOP

Powwow food is of two types. Powwow vendors frequently sell a variety of fry bread with various fixings (hotdogs, honey), Indian tacos (taco meat, onions, and spices in fry bread), drinks, and sometimes local tribal specialties. After the powwow dancing has occurred, there is generally a community meal provided by the local hosts for invited
participants (drum members, dancers, MC, veterans) and honored guests. The meal generally includes some kind of meat dish (often venison, buffalo meat, or game), fry bread, squash, ba-ba-ko-na (ground fresh corn "pancakes"), a corn soup or drink, and a berry dessert.    TOP

Regalia refers to the special clothing worn by dancers, drum or singers, and participants. These are outfits, not costumes. As Rhonda Pushetonequa of Tama noted, "Costumes are what people wear when they are masquerading as something they are not."Image of Grass dancer at Winter Powwow, Grubb YMCA, Des Moines

Each dance or song often requires its own outfit. For example, jingle dancers wear dresses decorated with rows of metal jingles made of rolled tobacco can lids. Shawl dancers wear specially decorated shawls. Northern traditional dancers don heavy "eagle" wings and single bustles to mimic the motions of the large birds; this is the oldest dance style and comes from the Umaha (Omaha) people. Grass dancers wear heavily fringed clothing that sways like the grasses they once trampled down to create a dance arena.    TOP


Text by Riki Saltzman. Photos by Will Thomson and Riki Saltzman.

the people powwwows drum & song dance
  food regalia  
  lesson plans resources traditional artists  
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