We were lucky to have Thomas Phillips, Kiowa/Muscogee-Creek, as Master of Ceremonies at the local Vallejo powwow, one of the smaller Native gatherings in the state. Tom, who teaches at the California State University, in the Stanislaus Department of Social Work, has been called upon many times to lead a powwow staff. He was MC of the Pechanga Powwow in Temecula, one of the biggest in California, drawing 60,000 guests. This year, the Vallejo Pow wow was produced by Ira and Marcia Hoaglen of Sacramento, who also served their famous Wailaki’s Indian Tacos at the event.
American Indians don’t hold public religious ceremonies so the powwow may be the closest thing to it. In every powwow there are prayers, with music and dance in praise of Creator. Ohiyesa, Charles Eastman, famously said, “There were no priests authorized to come between a man and his Maker,” in an American Indian’s private worship.
In his fine mellifluous broadcasting voice, Tom spoke proudly of the history behind the Gourd Dance that opens many California powwows. The traditional dance and its music, at least a century and a half old and once part of the Sun Dance was revived by the Kiowa Tribe’s Gourd Dance Clan, one of the tribe’s warrior clans in 1957 (1946 in another account) http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2011/02/24/history-warriors-da… The Golden State Gourd Society in Maywood, Ca. was started in 1971 to carry on the tradition. The Gourd dance is now regularly featured at powwows, especially in Oklahoma. The men wear red or blue wool capes, the red cape draped over their shoulders to honor one of the Ton-Kon-Gah (Black Leggings Society) chiefs, Young Red Colt who killed a Mexican officer and took his red cape as a war trophy.
It may disturb the feminists and others on the political left that a men’s-only warrior clan participates in this ritual, but most American Indians know that women still hold the real power in their society. The idea of the warrior is a different concept with a deeper significance to American Indians beyond just a person skilled in combat. He is expected to defend and protect the weak and powerless, the elders, women and children. Also “a Warrior is challenged to assume responsibility, practice humility, and display the power of giving, and then center his or her life around a core of spirituality. I challenge today’s youth to live like a warrior,” said Billy Mills (Oglala Sioux), the Olympic Gold Medalist.
After the Gourd Dance, the powwow officially began with the Grand Entry. The dancers lined up by dance style and by age, then entered the arena while Red Buffalo host Southern Drum sang a special entry song. First in were veterans carrying flags and eagle staffs, followed by the head dancers. This year locals were proud to see that our head woman dancer was Tina Puthoff of Livermore’s American Indian Center, see http://www.livermoreschools.com/AmericanIndianEducation . The rest of the dancers follow in a specific order: Men’s Traditional, Men’s Grass Dance, Men’s Fancy, Women’s Traditional, Women’s Jingle, and Women’s Fancy. As the Northern host All Nations drum sang a Flag Song, and a Victory or Veterans’ Song, the flags and staffs were posted at the MC’s table.
You will always see Jingle Dress dancers at the powwows. This dance too has an interesting history. Different accounts of the origins of the dress, also called a Prayer Dress, are told among the tribes. In the story that comes from the northern Ojibwe or Chippewa, along the Canadian border, it was seen in a dream as something that would bring healing to the people. A Medicine Man’s Granddaughter became very ill one day. In a dream, his spirit guides told him to make a Jingle Dress for her to dance in and this would heal her. When the outfit was finished, the tribe assembled for the dance. On her first time around, she had to be carried. But as the dance progressed, she regained her strength and was soon dancing in the circle.
Powwows have had a central role in the revival of Indian culture and pride. On Manitoulin Island (Ontario, Canada) the Ojibwe Community of Wikwemikong http://www.wikwemikong.ca/ once thought the resurgence of First Nations culture would never be realized in those dark days of cultural repression prior to 1961. The powwow, now known as the Wikwemikong Cultural Celebration, was reinstated with the help of elders from Saskatchewan who still carried the knowledge of the songs and dances. In the States too, the tribes experienced a renewed pride and love, overwhelming emotions, and relieved laughter to once again witness their songs, dances and ceremonies performed in public.