The Importance of Powwow Dances


a history of powwow dances-augsburg powwow-web.jpgWorld champion

jingle dress dancer Willow Abramson (Shoshone-Bannock) faced

difficult challenges in her life. In 2005, she and her family were

involved in a car crash; her baby daughter and husband did not

survive. She found healing in dancing.

She believes the

energy and life on the powwow circuit helped her find strength to

raise her son. She encourages her fellow dancers, “Some of us dance

to forget, some of us dance to remember, some of us dance to heal,

but whatever the reason, just dance with your heart and your spirit:

we see it shine when you dance.”

It’s officially

Powwow Season in Indian Country! The anticipation and excitement

dancers and singers built up throughout the winter months will be

unleashed within many traditional and contest powwows throughout the

country this year. Indigenous people have always gathered to

celebrate and heal through song and dance. What has evolved is our

contemporary powwow, the opportunity to share culture across various


Taking part in the

powwow circuit can create connections for lifelong friendships, as

dancers and singers alike. Frankie Graves (Leech Lake Ojibwe) has

been involved with powwows since he was a young child. Graves has

been a Grass Dancer, singer, Arena Director and even a master of

ceremonies at various powwows across the Midwest. He shares his

experience with the powwow culture, “So many beautiful Nations come

together in the summertime, almost creating one large nation, like a

big family.”

There are hundreds

of different tribal nations, all with very unique dances including

the Hoop Dance from the Southwest region, the Chicken Dance from the

western tribes, or the Smoke Dances from the East Coast. Although

only the primary dance styles are highlighted here, it is important

to keep in mind these dances all originated with teachings and



a history of powwow dances-womens fancy shawl-web.jpgFancy Shawl

The Fancy Shawl

dance is the most recent edition to the powwow scene, which appeared

around the 1950s. Women used their shawls, which looks similar to how

a butterfly moves about. The fancy shawl dance is a hybrid adaption

of various tribal dances. Their moves are often large and the

footwork is a complicated bounce, as women move lightly across the



Traditionala history of powwow dances-womens northern traditional-web.jpg


traditional is one of the oldest dances. Historically, this dance is

in honor of warriors returning home from battle. Northern style

traditional dancers stay on the perimeter of the arena and Northern

women’s traditional dancers often dressed in elaborate beadwork and

buckskin. Their regalia include intricate designs, beautiful fans and

amazing uses of color.



Like Northern

Traditional, Southern style has buckskin, velvet or other cloth

dresses. However, beadwork is only used as an accent. Southern style

Women’s Traditional dancers do not stay along the perimeter, but

gracefully step throughout the arena.

a history of powwow dances-jingle dress-web.jpgJingle Dress

The Jingle Dress

dance is considered a newer dance. There are different stories that

come with its creation. In one story, a young Ojibwe girl became very

ill. Her grandfather had a dream about a dress with these jingles all

around the dress, which gave the whooshing sound, like the sound of

the creation of the universe.

In the dream, the

young girl was to wear the dress and become healed. The story goes

that the young girl was too sick to dance, so she was carried around

the circle and was healed. The jingle dress since then was introduced

to other tribes and spread into the powwow circuit. The Jingle Dress

is considered to be a powerful medicine and women who take on the

dance style are to be very respectful.

Tin cones are sewn

around the dress, often 365 of them representing every day of the

year. Women often dance in small foot moves, in a zig-zag pattern,

creating a specific rhythmic sound with their jingles.


Fancya history of powwow dances-mens northern traditional-grass dancer-web.jpg

The newest edition

to the powwow, Men’s Fancy Dancers were at first considered clowns.

Like Women’s Fancy, this style of dance was an adaption of various

tribal dances. Men’s Fancy Dancers use incredible bright and bold

colors with their fast movements. Often using high jumps and fast

beats, fancy dancers wear two large bustles and two smaller ones on

their arms made of ribbon, yarn or hackle feathers creating a

streaming movement look to compliment dancing.



One of the oldest

dance styles, Northern Traditional Dancers imitate a hunter searching

for their enemy. Originating from the Northern Plains tribes,

Northern Traditional Dancers have a bustle with about 28 eagle

feathers and colorful beadwork. They often carry a fan or an eagle




Also known as

Straight Dancing, Southern style Traditional Men’s Dancers do not

wear a bussel and their movements are more concentrated compared to

the Northern Men’s style.

a history of powwow dances-mens grass-web.jpgGrass Dance

Originating from

the Omaha Warrior Society, the Grass Dance began as a victory dance

and has since evolved. Outfits have ribbon or yarn fringes somewhat

resembling grasses flowing in the wind. Dance moves are symmetrical,

as dancers create movements in one direction to be duplicated with

the other side.

COVER PHOTO:  The afternoon Grand Entry at the 7th Annual Augsburg Traditional Powwow in Minneapolis on March 28. Veterans hold a special place in Native American culture, often leading the Color Guard before the dancers. (Photo by Deanna StandingCloud)