Colors, beats, tribes and travelers blend in this universal coming-together.
Admittedly, I didn’t know what I was in for when I decided to attend an authentic powwow. So I called ahead to Big Cypress, the Seminole Indian reservation between Naples and Fort Lauderdale in South Florida, to find out everything I should know.
“There will be music, dancing and arts and crafts vendors,” the woman on the phone told me. (I was expecting all of that.)
As I learned, powwows may or may not match what you’ve always imagined. To start, they are specifically designed to give the public a view of Native American customs. That means that tribes from all over America gather, along with anyone who wants to observe, sing, dance and celebrate a mix of traditions. So, while you’ll see fashions and crafts indicative of individual tribes, the songs you’ll hear are “intertribals.” These are songs whose original lyrics have been replaced with “vocables,” non-language sounds created to carry melody so any attending tribes can participate. Intertribal dances exist as well. All songs and dances, even intertribals, carry meaning, though none are as sacred as the songs and dances of the individual tribes, which are performed only during closed ceremonies.
The powwow opens with the Grand Entry, presenting all of the dancers from the Head Man and Lady (the lead dancers) to the princesses. The princesses are young women selected to represent their families and tribes. Their sashes display where they’re from, and their crowns make them easy to spot. During the powwow I attended, cameras clicked as one princess moved gracefully, her dark eyes and hair shining in the sun.
Visually, the powwow is a pageant of feathers, beads and, for the Seminoles, patchwork costumes of cotton and satin melding metallics and colors. They are contemporary versions of the handiwork displayed in the reservation’s museum. And the music? It was entrancing. The attending tribes form distinct drum sections, pounding out rhythms that are at times furious, at times languid, but always steady. It’s a kind of timeless beat that suggests you could just as easily be watching the dancers’ ancestors centuries ago.
Look for the blanket dance (you’ll know it’s time when the dancers enter the arena carrying a blanket). Place a dollar bill, or more if you wish, on the blanket and dance the rest of the song. If you don’t want to dance, ask a dancer to place the money on the drum for you.
I didn’t dance. But I did rejoice in being part of the cultural survival of this people. And I understood why the voice on the phone that day had grown progressively more passionate as she described what I would experience.