Pow Wow Now: Part 4: The Dancers

By John Curl
Tuesday October 05, 2010 - 09:27:00 AM

Dawn on pow wow day greets the vendors, many coming from long distances, setting up booths displaying an amazing array of craft items and traditional foods. With them is vendors coordinator Hallie Frazer and her clip board, straightening out any confusion about spaces and checking that all the booths are carrying only creations hand made by Native people. Every vendor contributes a piece to the raffle, and winners are announced throughout the day. 

Around 10 am traditional elders bless the grounds. Then exhibition dancing begins, from traditions outside the dances of the pow wow proper. People who arrive later miss this extraordinary segment. Native California Indians dance first, since it is their land and we are their guests. Traditional Pomo dancers, feather bands across their foreheads, feathered robes and skirts, bone whistles, barefoot and crouched, stomping deep into the earth, hunting, praying. Then the Aztec dancers, conch shell trumpets to the four directions, long feathers swooping to the beat of the tall upright drum, connecting earth and sky, keeping the stars, planets, celestial forces in their proper motion, balance and harmony. 

The Open Gourd Dancing begins. Because of its particular spiritual significance, no filming is permitted. The dancers, usually with a red and blue blanket over their shoulders, holding metal or gourd rattles and feather fans, find places near the perimeter of the circle. They dance in place or nearby, shaking the rattles in a horizontal motion, lifting their feet to the drums in prayer. The pace of the songs starts slowly then picks up as the dance progresses. It is a healing for warriors, a proud, dignified dance. The Head Gourd Dancer this year is Earl Neconie (Kiowa). 

At noon is the Grand Entry, and the pow wow proper begins. All the dancers line up in a specific order behind elders and veterans carrying the Eagle Staff and flags at the entrance to the arena. This is in honor of all the warriors of the past and veterans of today who sacrificed for their people. As a host drum begins a special song, the staff and flag holders lead the procession into the arena and around the circle, slowly moving in a group to the drum beat: a powerful spectacle. Then the MC calls an honored elder forward to give an invocation. As the other host drum plays veterans and victory songs, the staff and flags are positioned at the MC table, and the procession leaves the arena. 

The dance circle is blessed by an honored elder. The MC introduces the head staff and visiting dignitaries. This year the MC is Randy Pico (Luiseño), the Arena Director Henry Johnson (Paiute) and the Coordinator Gino Barichello (Muscogee). 

The drum begins again, for either a sneak-up or a round dance. The sneak-up dance is based on scouting animals or rivals. The drum quickens to pitch, suddenly stops, and the dancers need to stop simultaneously. Intertribal Round dances are joyous social occasions, and all people—non-Native and Native alike—are invited into the arena to dance together. Everyone joins hands into a long circle moving around and around. If there are too many, another circle is formed within the first. The round dance transcends all cultures and brings people together. 

The Contest dancing begins, organized around dance style, gender, and age. The judges are elders, usually winning dancers. The contest styles are Traditional, Fancy, Grass, Jingle, and Shawl. Pow wow dances today are the result of over a century of evolution through interaction of the Native people of different tribes and nations. 

The Tiny Tots come on first, all under 6, some in their first pow wow, always a joy to watch, and everyone’s a winner. 

The Head Man and Head Lady Dancers are the first to dance in any song. This is an honor, and head dancers serve as model for all other dancers. This year the Head Dancers are siblings, Daniel and Angelina Swimmer (Lakota). 

The Men’s Traditional Dance is based on a warrior stalking game or tracking an enemy. The dancer may be wearing a feather bustle and headdress, beaded moccasins, ankle bells, carrying a shield and a dance stick. 

Men’s Fancy Dance is strenuous, with intricate footwork. Fancy Dancers spin and leap, wearing brilliant regalia, and two feathered/beaded dance sticks.

 Men’s Grass Dance involves swaying and dipping motions. It began as an occasion of flattening plains grass for a camp. Grass dancers wear colorful shirts and pants, with fringes and ribbons, ankle bells, headdress, beaded moccasins. 

Ladies’ Fancy Shawl Dance is based on a butterfly in flight, with highly energetic, intricate footwork involving dips, twirls, spins, and other fancy steps. The dancers wear a fringed shawl with vest and leggings usually adorned with sequins or beads, and a feather in the hair. 

The Jingle Dance dress is sewn with row upon row of small metal cones that chime rhythmically, and dancers wear beaded leggings, carry a feather fan and a plume in the hair. The Jingle Dance is associated with healing. 

In between contest dances there may be Honor Songs for members of the community who have crossed over in the last year, and Blanket Dances to raise funds for deserving organizations, families in need, visiting drums, or another worthy cause. Every year there are special dances, such as a Two Step/Owl Dance (Ladies Choice); a Potato Dance sponsored by the Black Native American Association, a Switch Dance (women and men exchanging regalia and dancing in each other’s style). At various times more intertribal Round dances are held where all people, Native and non-Native dance together. 

Toward the end of the day the final raffle winners are announced. The contest winners are called to be honored and receive their prizes. There is a Thank- You song for the organizing committee. Finally at 6pm, as the sun hovers low in the west, the Eagle Staff and the colors are retired, and the Indigenous People Day Pow Wow is ended until next year.  

Hope to see you there. For all our relations. 


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.