This past spring, more than 105,000 people attended the Gathering of Nations powwow in Albuquerque, New Mexico—the greatest number of participants in its 40-year history. Such a crowd was unimaginable just a couple of years ago at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when family, friends and colleagues had to be isolated for months. The pain of this separation was felt deeply in Indigenous communities, where the passing of traditions often depends on interactions between generations. Now community ceremonies have resumed and powwows are once again thriving across North America, fueled by the strong heartbeat of a drum.
The word “powwow” is said to originate from the Algonquian word “pau wau,” which translates to “he dreams,” referring to a medicine man who learned his skills from a dream, explained Dennis Zotigh, who is of the Kiowa, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and Isante Dakota Tribes and a cultural specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Initially, powwows began in the Plains and were held to conduct sacred ceremonies, such as to heal or give a child an Indian name. A significant part of many community powwows is the giveaway, during which a person or family who wishes to thank or acknowledge the deeds of others does so by bestowing upon them lavish gifts such as a horse, blankets or handcrafted jewelry, pottery and baskets. These ceremonies might last throughout the day and into the night before any dancing begins.
Native Nations would also invite neighboring tribes to their encampments to ensure good relations and honor warriors. The Kiowa Tribe created the gourd dance for such gatherings to acknowledge valor in battle. During this slow, methodic dance, male dancers rattle a gourd filled with seeds. This dance has been adopted by many tribes, and honoring the military service of Native veterans is a significant part of powwows today.
Yet many Indigenous ceremonies stopped and sacred songs and dances began to be lost during the 1800s. The passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forced many tribes to relocate from their homelands, as well as the implementation of U.S. and Canadian government endeavors to “kill the Indian, save the man” later in the century by forcibly taking Indigenous children from their families and putting them into boarding schools were intended to suppress Native culture. After many Indigenous people served in World War I, their patriotism was recognized, leading to the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. This law declared that American Indians are U.S. citizens and allowed them to vote. But not until the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978 did many American Indians truly feel they would be able to express their religion and themselves through sacred ceremonies, music and dance.
The powwows attended by the non-Native public didn’t start happening until the early 20th century. They are thought to have been inspired by the Wild West shows of the late 1800s, which attracted curious onlookers who were captivated by what were billed as lively “war dances.” To satisfy these patrons, such dances at these events were more performances than true war dances.
Today, at tribal encampments, or “homecomings,” many families still camp in the same spot their ancestors have for generations. Campfires are at the ready to prepare food not only for themselves but also for any guests who might stop by. With the shrinkage of Indian lands through the centuries and the availability of hotels near larger, intertribal powwows today, socializing may be done around food tents or while visiting the many vendors who come to sell their artworks and crafts. Such gatherings in Canada and the United States have proven essential for Native peoples living away from their communities and in urban areas to maintain ties to Indigenous culture, even if it isn’t their own. As Zotigh said, powwows have become “a celebration of being Native.”
These events may start with a parade and then the Grand Entry, a procession of participants led into an arena by someone carrying a staff covered by feathers from eagles and other raptors symbolizing skilled hunters and warriors. In the United States, this may be followed by a color guard—four military veterans carrying the flags of the host tribe and the United States as well as one symbolizing servicemen and women and another for the Gold Star mothers of fallen soldiers. The flag-bearers may be followed by the Head Man and Head Woman Dancers and a Powwow Princess. Singers encircle a drum at the center or alongside the arena. Zotigh—who is a member of The Zotigh Singers, a world-renowned group of Native singers and drummers founded by his father, Ralph Zotigh—said that no matter where the drummers are, “the drum is the center of the powwow,” as it sets the tempo for each dance.
Just like professional athletes, some dancers, drummers and singers follow the “powwow circuit” all year long, competing for monetary prizes at events that are frequently also open to non-Native viewers. The Gathering of Nations has also held a Miss Indian World contest since 1984, a year after Derek and Lita Mathews launched what has become the world’s largest powwow. Derek Mathews was at that time just stepping in to help the “Indian club” continue its meetings at the University of Albuquerque, where he served as dean of students and the club’s advisor. This local gathering has since bloomed into a highly competitive, multinational event. It persevered even during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 through virtual competitions. Attendance resurged with the return of the in-person powwow in 2022, attracting people from around the globe.
Although this kind of competition is not reflective of ceremonial powwows, the spirit of bringing together tribes to share their diverse cultures while enjoying a mutual sense of Indigenous community remains. At Gathering of Nations, announcers try to provide a bit of background about each of the different dances, which Derek Mathews said “enables us to bridge that gap” between Native and non-Native attendees. A powwow can be “a cultural pedagogy,” added Lita Mathews.
It can also be “an exciting way for younger people to come away with something positive,” said Derek Mathews. Tori McConnell, this year’s Miss Indian World, said she and the young ladies who have served in this role before her are “advocates for their culture and their people” at public events throughout the year. As her own Yurok and Karuk peoples of northern California do not host powwows, being able to participate in the Gathering of Nations has allowed her to learn from people from many other tribes. “I am truly grateful for the relationships I started here,” she said. Reflecting on the ability of powwows to unite generations and cultures, Derek Mathews said, “The spirit of it all. The drum, the dancing, the healing—it is hard to leave without it coming with you.”
Lester Harragarra (Otoe-Missouria/Kiowa) is an award-winning photographer whose images have been featured in many exhibitions and publications.