Many American Indian tribes across the nation hold powwows that are basically megaconcerts, with tickets sold to the nontribal general public. Visitors often come away from these events thinking that they’ve gotten an authentic glimpse into Indian traditions and spirituality, a perception fueled by some tribes’ marketing. “It is truly an honor to attend a powwow,” states the web page of the Northern Colorado Intertribal Pow-wow Association Inc.—an honor, incidentally, that’s available to anyone with ticket money.
But what exactly is a powwow, and what are its ties to Indian tradition? Ojibwe historian Anton Treuer sets the record straight in the book Ojibwe in Minnesota, which was recently published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press:
Powwow itself is new. It did not exist seventy years ago. It is a pan-Indian combination of Omaha grass dance ceremonies, Dakota war dances, Ojibwe dreams about the jingle dress, and rodeo customs, where dancers who used to parade into army forts in tribal war regalia now parade into the powwow arena in dance regalia for grand entry. There are many types of powwows. But [many powwows] involve singers and dancers competing for money. Participants’ abilities to sing and dance are highly valued, supplanting older cultural ideals of community cohesion, inclusiveness, and respectful generosity. The modern powwow is a welcome, healthy gathering of people from many communities. It is a joyous social event and source of community pride. But it is not a substitute for traditional Ojibwe religion or ways of life.
Treuer points out that powwows have become big business. Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota spends more than $100,000 for prize money on its Labor Day powwow alone, not to mention the many smaller powwows it presents:
The powwow budget for Leech Lake completely eclipses tribal expenditures on traditional culture and Ojibwe language revitalization. Tribes and tribal people are agents of their own cultural change.
So remember that if you attend a large commercial powwow, you are more likely watching a sort of American Indian Idol than a sacred and ancient ceremony. It may be fun, and entertaining, and spectacular, but it’s probably no more traditional than the fry bread they’re selling at the food stands.
Because Minnesota has been at the epicenter of many Indian sovereignty, treaty rights, and social justice issues, Treuer’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in Indian history. From the fur trade and Ojibwe-Dakota relations right up through ugly public skirmishes over spearfishing and casinos, Ojibwe in Minnesota is a clear, candid, and authoritative overview of a people whose epic history is still unfolding.