Many non-Native people have heard the word “pow wow” but have a vague understanding, or even misconceptions, about what the traditional ceremony is all about and its importance to the culture and history of North American Indians.
A pow wow is a festive intertribal event organized by Native Americans dressed in their finest regalia where they dance, sing, drum, socialize with relatives, friends and fellow tribal members – but most importantly it where they honor their culture and ancestors.
Much of what we have learned over years of working with Native communities has come directly from people themselves – our staff, program partners, and the elders who can recall the days long past – and we have always been eager to broaden our knowledge and respect of their customs and traditions.
Our Running Strong for American Indian Youth® Dreamstarters®, many of whom have dreams to pass on the knowledge of the elders to today’s Native children and young people, have much to teach as well.
Among them is Ruben Zendejas (Omaha Tribe of Nebraska), a member of the 2016 class of Dreamstarters® whose dream project was “Dancing Strong Youth Pow Wow”.
“My goal is to encourage more young Native kids to start dancing, learning about their Native American culture,” he told us in his Dreamstarter application. “In order to do this we would hold activities throughout the year to help them understand and learn about pow wows.”
His dream project was to culminate by holding a “kids’ pow wow” where the educators of the Provo (UT) City School District (Ruben’s mentor organization) will learn along with the students.
Ruben is well-versed in the tradition of the pow wow as a member of Living Legends, a multicultural dance group at Brigham Young University which helps him share his culture through song and dance, as well as both a tutor and dance instructor in the school district’s Native Hoop class that serves 200 Native students.
On Saturdays, he also teaches Hoop and men’s dance classes.
“Many of the kids have not lived on the reservation and hare not familiar with pow wow dancing,” Rueben told us. “They are excited to learn however.
“If we want to pass down our traditions and cultures to our kids, we need to give them confidence and opportunities to learn,” he added.
Reuben explained that “Many times at pow wows, things are not explained very well to the average person walking in off the street. I want this pow wow to be a place where if you come in, you will learn something.”
And, upon the realization of his dream on April 29, 2017 in the Provo High School gymnasium, he did just that.
“The project provided an experience for Native youth to share their newly-learned talents in a safe and fun environment,” he reported following the realization of his dream. “Finally, the project was also able to increase community awareness of Native American culture and the issues facing it.”
According to the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center, historically, tribal nations in North American held ceremonies celebrating successful hunts, food gathering or warfare. These ceremonies allowed the people to give thanks, honor their deceased relatives or deal with special honors such as name-giving ceremonies, adoptions and coming-of-age rites of passage.
In addition, many times, a pow wow – or wacipi – was held to renew allegiances and maintain friendships with members of visiting tribes, and often involved dancing and feasting.
“Regardless of the setting, on or off the reservation, Native American people continue to express their cultures in the pow wow,” the museum states. “The pow wow brings people together in a common purpose.
“Pow wow means the gathering of relations of people, a place people come to get well, feel good about themselves and about their people. It is a place of good spirits.”
For Running Strong staff member and Oglala Lakota elder Ken Lone Elk, wacipi has held a special place in his heart since childhood.
“The word I still use is ‘wacipi’ – the old word I used to hear from the old ones,” says Ken.
He especially likes the word in connection with “oskate,” meaning the place to have fun and games.
“I like this word because it used to be a lot of fun and games,” says Ken, who although still attends wacipis can no longer dance traditional as he did many years ago. “I wish I still could, but age caught up with me and my back!”
At a wacipi, it’s not just the dancers who enjoy themselves.
“The entire audience has the opportunity to join in the fun,” he said, adding, “I guess this goes back to the days when the cavalry and other ‘wasicu’ (white men) chased us and tried to kill us.
“This gave us a time to heal and regroup,” he continued. “I guess the old ones tried to forget the horrors they saw and experienced, thus the word ‘oskate’ was used to try and forget the bad times and enter a new beginning.
“I guess it was remembering the happy and carefree times as a child when they played safely and freely. It might be their way of healing the pain their parents felt and experienced during those cruel times, and they used this word to encourage everyone to have fun.
“As I have always said…this is my interpretation and understanding as told by my Father and Mother.”