Powerful Powwows: Native Events in Oklahoma - MetroFamily Magazine
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Powerful Powwows: Native Events in Oklahoma

by Heide Brandes

Reading Time: 3 minutes 

When Sarah Adams-Cornell of Oklahoma City attends Native American powwows, she does so as a member of the Choctaw tribe.

Her two daughters, Gabrielle and Isabella, have attended dances since they were small, and Sarah began attending the Native American cultural events as a way to reconnect with her Choctaw heritage.

“I started going as an adult, and for me, it’s a way to reconnect and be with loved ones and friends,” she said. “Powwows are a great place to learn about Native American heritage and how each tribe is different. For us, dance is a type of prayer, but visitors are welcome to come, learn and ask questions.”

Oklahoma is home to 67 American Indian tribes which continue to celebrate and maintain Oklahoma’s unique Native heritage. Families across the state and beyond can take part in the community gatherings and events of Oklahoma’s tribes by attending powwows or celebrations, being swept back into history through the pounding of powwow drums, the sway of dancing and the sacred voices of chants and songs.

regalia pow wow

The History 

Oklahoma has numerous opportunities to introduce children to tribal art, culture, history and song. In addition to the cultural centers and museums sprinkled throughout the region, families can attend powwows held throughout the summer and fall in the state.

According to the Oklahoma Choctaw Nation, a powwow is a gathering of Native American people and their guests who come together to sing, dance, renew old friendships and make new ones.

Although powwows are a social gathering that include friendly dance competitions and Native games, it is also a time when visitors and tribal members focus on preserving the rich heritage of Native cultures.

Many powwows are open to the general public and families are encouraged to attend, but families should also be aware of powwow etiquette.

“Families attending should expect a mix of Native cultures in a community gathering type of feel,” said Callie Chunespudy, cultural specialist for the Oklahoma Cherokee Nation. “I think people have the wrong idea that this is always sacred ceremony. It’s really an experience of Native culture as a whole.”

Chunespudy said non-native families can attend powwows to experience traditional dances, but also Native arts and crafts, food and music.

“As far as etiquette, I would say be respectful of the fact that this is a different culture than yours,” she said. “People are inquisitive and we want people to learn about us, but be aware that there are different tribes and we are not all the same.”

The Dance

To families new to the powwow scene, many of the dances might appear similar to the inexperienced eye, but each is dramatically different.

Male dancers usually dance traditional, fancy and grass dances while female dancers participate in buckskin, fancy shawl, cloth and jingle dress dances.

stick ball powwow

During the dances or competitions, the participants wear incredible regalia, like buckskin tunics, bone breastplates and feather headdresses.

One of the most important etiquette advice is to respect that regalia.

“Never touch someone else’s regalia without their permission,” said Adams-Cornell. “It’s considered sacred. It’s also very polite to ask permission to take someone’s photo.”

The Fancy Dance is one of the most athletic and strenuous of modern powwow dances, and is said to have originated in Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department. The dance features jumps, spins and fancy footwork to the beat of the drum.

Each dance has a meaning. For instance, the Fancy Shawl Dance represents a butterfly in flight while the Jingle Dress comes from one of the northern U.S. tribes and is associated with healing the sick.

“The Jingle Dress is medicine for us,” said Adams-Cornell. “There is a reason and a story behind every dance we do.”

Attending Your First Event

In addition to being respectful and telling children not to touch dancers’ regalia, families should be prepared to fully enjoy the experience.

Adams-Cornell suggested that newcomers attend an event with a friend who has attended powwows before, if possible.

“Going with a family seasoned in powwow etiquette can help,” she said. “If it’s your first time, you may want to plan on just coming for one day or an afternoon. Bring a chair, plenty of water and wear comfortable clothes. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

While many of these events are free to the public, be sure to bring some cash along to purchase food, art and memorabilia from the vendors.

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