When I lived in the Southwest between ’66 and ’71, I attended a Ute sundance, many Pueblo Indian ceremonies and, when I worked on the To’Hajiilee reservation, many Navajo healing rites that few outsiders have ever seen. But I’d never been to a pow wow. The first pow wow I ever attended I also helped organize, on Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day 1993.
It’s hard to believe that this year will mark our 19th annual pow wow. Little by little I’ve learned a few things about them. Pow wows are a place where Native people welcome non-Natives to come together, dance, sing, socialize with them, and honor Indigenous culture. There are dancing competitions, with prize money. Great Native food and crafts. The Berkeley Pow Wow has always been just one day, but some of the biggest ones continue for a full week.
On the first Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day, back in 1992, we commemorated 500 years of Native resistance with ceremonies by Indigenous elders, but we didn’t hold a pow wow until our second year. I don’t recall whose original idea it was. I’ve asked around, but nobody seems to be able to trace it to one person. It might have been Millie Ketcheschawno, Muscogee, one of our group’s first members, an activist on Alcatraz and a filmmaker. It could have been Dennis Jennings, Sauk-and-Fox, our first pow wow coordinator and a Treaty Council activist. More likely it was many people’s idea, just floating in the air until the organizing committee pulled it down.
Many tribes trace pow wows back to their own periodic gatherings, large traditional celebratory feasts, usually after the fall harvest. The oldest continuous annual pow wow today is probably the Quapaw, now in its 138th year in Oklahoma. The term pow wow comes from an Algonquian word for a gathering of people, which began to be used in Oklahoma around 1900.
Diverse tribes have different stories about the origin of pow wow dancing. There are distinct northern and southern traditions. One commonly told origin story among southern tribes holds that the first pow wow dance was the Iruska, a dance of the Pawnee, taught to a man named Crow Feather by a group of spiritual beings who immersed their hands into boiling water and fire. Iruska means "they are inside the fire," but is often translated as "warrior." The dance is usually known today as the Warrior or Straight Dance. The beings held Crow Feather over hot coals, and after he survived, they taught him songs and the dance, and told him to teach them to the people. Then the beings turned into birds and animals and left. On a second night they returned and repeated the ceremony. At the end, one spiritual being stayed behind and taught Crow Feather to make many of the symbolic items worn today by male pow wow dancers. His “crow belt” is today the back bustle worn by Fancy dancers. His “roach headdress,” made from deer and porcupine hair, represents the fire ordeal: an eagle feather in a deer shoulder blade represents the man standing in the center of the fire; the bone also represents the medicine given to him.
In the early twentieth century the dance spread out of Oklahoma through the Great Plains north to Canada. Dance societies were formed in over thirty Plains tribes, and through the dance former enemies made peace. Pow wows gained momentum after World War II, when they were held as local honoring ceremonies for returning Indian veterans. In the mid-1950s many Native people began traveling between communities, dancing in pow wows and promoting Intertribal culture. But they weren’t very prominent until after the Alcatraz occupation of 1969-’71, when an intense intertribalism revitalized Native culture.
With time and many different tribes adding their individual characters to the dance, the Iruska took a variety of forms: Grass Dance, Fancy Dance, the Northern and Southern Traditional, and many more. At first women did not dance, but today have a wide variety of dances, including the Jingle Dance, Shawl Dance, and forms of the Northern and Southern Traditional.
Pow wow dancing today is based on spiritual values, the commemoration of warriors who struggled for their people, former enemies dancing together, peacemakers and peace, cultural survival and spiritual resurgence.
This year Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow and Indian Market will be held in Civic Center Park on Saturday, October 9, 10am to 6pm. Sponsored by the City, it is always free.