Vince Two Eagles: Powwows and Sundances are not the same

The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe of South Dakota hosts its annual wacipi, or powwow, every summer. Photo from Facebook

The Rez of the Story
By Vince Two Eagles

Hau Mitakuepi (Greetings My Relatives),

August or Wasuton wi (Moon when all things ripen), of 2015 proved to be an absolute scorcher! As with all things, “some like it hot--some like it cold.”

Although record heat blanketed our area this past summer, not only is it a time when things ripen but it is a time when Indians like to Pow-wow. One of our most important and sacred ceremonies, the Sundance, is held throughout Indian country as well. So what’s the difference many of our non-Indian brethren always want to know? Prompted by reader inquiry here are some thoughts about that very topic.

Many things are told about these cultural and spiritual events held literally around the globe these days. There are Pow-wows and Sundances held routinely throughout many European countries and therein lies the rub for many Indian people.

Let’s talk about the Pow-wow first. Pow-wow is a universal term used by many Indian people throughout north America. In American Indians: Answers to Today's Questions author Jack Utter tells us that the word pow-wow is "derived from the Algonquin-speaking Narragansett tribe of the Rhode Island region. In its original usage, it meant a Native healer or priest."

Utter continues:
"For example, in 1646, the Massachusetts Bay Colony defined “pawwows” as “witches or sorcerers that cure by the help of the devil” (Spicer 1969, p. 174). In 1674, another observer wrote, “Their physicians are Powaws or Indian Priests" (Oxford English Dictionary 1989). Early on, the meaning of pow wow was expanded by non-Indians to include ceremonies in which Indian healers or religious leaders participated. The word was later widely applied and accepted by Indians and non-Indians as a generic term to cover nearly all gatherings involving feasts, councils, or inter-tribal conferences. Today the term is still applied to healers and spiritual leaders, but that meaning is used by some of the eastern tribes. In Indian country, “pow wow” currently means a tribal or inter-tribal dance, fair, rodeo, celebration, or other gathering. These may vary in size from small social functions to the very large “Gathering of Nations” pow wow, which annually draws people to Albuquerque, New Mexico, from throughout the U.S. and Canada. In addition to their recreational value, pow wows are socially significant for individual participants and are important to Indian solidarity, spirituality, cultural identity, and exchange of social-political information.’

As far as I know, pow wows are usually open to the public. There will not only be many different styles and types of dances and dancers but it is not uncommon to see Indian Name-Giving, Wiping of the Tears, Honoring and other ceremonies. Additionally, it is quite common to see Giveaways (these are quite often “Memorial Ceremonies” remembering those who have deceased).

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The Sundance on the other hand is a bird of a different feather, so to speak. Many traditional Indian people who still practice the old religious ceremonies believe it is disrespectful to allow non-Indians to either participate or observe the Sundance. This is, of course, their right.

If, on the other hand, the dancers or the sponsor of the Sundance think it is alright to allow non-Indians to attend and/or participate then so be it. The bottom line is that you have to ask before attending or participating in this very sacred ceremony.

I know the allowing of non-Indians to attend a Sundance, let alone participate in one, is highly controversial in Indian country. Even among Indian people I have observed a tendency to generalize ritual. This means that there are those who say one way of conducting a Sundance is right while another way is wrong. It is next to impossible, in my estimation, to win such an argument especially when we know different Tiyos’payes (Indian families) have their own particular way of doing things.

I don’t believe this necessarily represents disunity among Indian people but allows for diversity in thought and individuality in religious practice. I understand that Indian people have always respected each individual’s right to develop and explore their own personal relationship with the Creator without interference from someone else. If this is true then to each his own -- some like it hot some like it cold. There is very little room for criticism but plenty of room to support and keep alive our Indian ways; especially our ceremonial life.

Once again, for you non-Indians, don’t be afraid to ask and you can’t go wrong.

And now you know the rez of the story.

Doksha (later). . .

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