Notes from the Pow Wow

This past weekend I attended both the Gathering of Nations Pow Wow and the Nizhoni Days Pow Wow. Some observations:

1. Like any large gathering of people who self-identify in a common way, a lot of the fun seems to be seeing people like you and feeling the sense of community that can be hard to feel when you know abstractly that they’re out there but can’t see them. In normal life you have to adapt to society, but here, for a little while, you are society. Outsiders (like me) were only a small percentage of attendees.

2. The participants came from all over the place. Most were from the American and Canadian Plains and West, where one would expect, but not all. Not all are living in or near tribal communities. This one wasn’t too surprising but it was nice to see.

3. The Gathering of Nations is structured around several competitions: a few categories of dancing, hand drum (with singing, mostly in English), the Miss Indian World competition. This seems like a very efficient way to organize large gatherings that don’t have a very specific mission.

4. Though the participants come from many different backgrounds, the dance competitions featured a few standardized Pan-Indian styles of dance. The interesting part is that these are not “traditional” but relatively recent. For example the “fancy dance” was developed in the 1920s and ’30s in Oklahoma and quickly became a major style throughout the US and Canada. On a related note synthetic materials made up the majority of the costumes. Many people had quality moccasins or leather goods but these are living, adapting cultures even if they keep selling authentic stuff to tourists (and using it themselves, naturally). Almost all of the hand drum competitors wore street clothes, as did the drummers who play during the dances.

5. At some point we have to talk about words. Specifically endonyms. “Native” or “Native American” is common, but also “Indian” and (infrequently) “indigenous” in addition to the various tribal names. However one refers to this community the name debate seems much less heated than the politicized debate outside of it indicates.

6. I am always interested in seeing what sports teams people like, to make a mental map of sports fandom I suppose, and I couldn’t help noticing here as well. The Dallas Cowboys seem to have a plurality of football fans but that’s mainly due to so many of the people living in areas where the team is popular anyway. Next up was the Arizona Cardinals for the same reason. Likewise, teams with national followings, e.g. Green Bay or Pittsburgh, were also well represented. The noteworthy thing was that there were a lot of fans of other teams you wouldn’t necessarily expect: Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Kansas City Chiefs. Cleveland in particular had a lot of fans. Based on the participant lists almost nobody was from these areas, so these are people who went out of their way to be fans of these franchises. This, too, is a big debate outside of the community that doesn’t seem to be nearly so important inside of it. (It happens but not all the time and opinions are far from uniform, as we’ve seen.) It’s possible that some of them were wearing these items more for style than for actual interest in sports—think of how common the New York Yankees logo is—but that makes the point even stronger.

To people with exposure to modern Indian culture none of this should be surprising. To people without such exposure a kind of “Indigenism” is common akin to what Edward Said called “Orientalism” in another context. Indigenism is motivated by the desire to be respectful but still treats Indian cultures as overly exotic, monolithic, stylized, and essentially fragile. They aren’t.