Pow Wow!

Everybody, at least once in their lives, should attend a Pow Wow. This weekend, I have the great privilege of attending the annual Taos Pueblo Pow Wow in northern New Mexico. Last time I went, two summers ago, the experience was so enthralling that I fell asleep that night with the beat of the drums still echoing between my ears. In fact, when I listen quietly, I realize they’ve been echoing ever since

Pow Wows are a celebratory gathering of Native Peoples that in modern times, have evolved into Intertribal dance competitions. Many Pow Wows welcome the public and the Taos event is widely known for its stunning outdoor setting in the shadow of Mount Wheeler, New Mexico’s highest peak.

The Taos Pow Wow was advertised to begin at 1 pm “Indian Time”, which translated to about 1:20, with a Grand Entry of more than a hundred dancers – men and women of all ages in full regalia – followed by a free-for-all Intertribal dance and then drumming and dance competitions.

Grand Entry

And what regalia it was! Right off the bat, the announcer explained the dancers’ outfits were not to be called costumes. “Costumes are for halloween,” he said. “These are the real deal.” The detail, craftsmanship and creativity of the regalia worn by every dancer was exquisite; nothing less than wearable works of art.

Men’s Traditional Dance Regalia

Many of the components of the regalia – including the eagle feathers – are handed down through families in ceremonies, one of which was held during the Pow Wow for a young girl who had a dream that she would become a celebrated jingle dress dancer. One of her grandmother’s feathers was given to her during a break in the dance competition and then she and her mother, a jingle dress dancer herself, led a procession of all the dancers around the circular arena.

Jingle Dress Mother & Daughter

If I was a Native dancer, I’d want to be a jingle dress girl too. The sound of all those metal cones bouncing against one another is exquisite and although the dance itself is one of the more subtle, the motion and sound of the bells is mesmerizing.

In addition to the jingle dress dance, the women also showcased the fancy shawl dance, buckskin dance, and so-called traditional dance (the links will take you to short clips I made of each of the dances). Women only began participating in powwows in the mid-1950’s, around the time when they began playing more active roles in tribal governance and fewer dances have been created to date, but each is unique and lovely.

The men competed in separate categories called the grass dance, the fancy feather dance, the chicken dance (very different from that awful wedding dance and quite beautiful), the northern and southern straight dances and the traditional dance.

Grass Dancer

Of the men’s dances, my favorites were the grass dance, the fancy feather dance and the traditional dance. Each of the dances is unique, with its own regalia, drumbeats and footwork. In all the categories participants are judged on their rhythm, balance, regalia and creativity. The grass dance involved very intricate footwork, while the fancy feather dance was a whirl of spins and leaps.

Fancy Feather Dancer

The traditional dance was somewhat more subdued than the flashy grass and feather dances, but the regalia was exquisite and the dances told fascinating stories of hunting game and tracking enemies.

Traditional Dancer

During the second men’s traditional dance (all categories danced two heats, back to back) one of the dancers lost an eagle feather and as soon as it was noticed, everything stopped. I don’t have any photos of this part of the day because at that moment, the powwow ceased to be a celebration and became a very solemn religious ceremony and the announcer asked us all to stand, remove our hats and to not take photos.

Eagle feathers are sacred to Native Americans as they represent, among other symbols, their fallen warriors. When an eagle feather falls to the ground it must be cleansed before it can be retrieved, otherwise they believe they risk disgracing their ancestors and possibly endangering the health of the one who dropped it.

Eagle Dancer

To retrieve the feather, four veterans and a number of tribal elders surrounded the fallen feather, chanting and singing and dancing. Four times the veterans (from the Vietnam and Gulf Wars) laid their hands over the feather, before one of them finally picked it up. Then the announcer explained that whoever feels called to retrieve the feather must tell a story from battle that he has never told before. The man with the feather was given a microphone and he told a heart-wrenching story first in Tiwa, the Native tongue and then in English of a good friend dying in his arms in Vietnam.

The response from the crowd was as moving as his story. Throughout the telling, which was laden with emotion and halted more than once for tears, the man’s tribal members called out their support and encouragement. Afterwards, the whooping, clapping and drumming was deafening as everybody thanked the veteran for his sacrifice, both in war and in reliving a painful story so that the eagle feather could be restored to power. The feather was then returned to the dancer, who looked on the verge of tears himself, over prayers from each of the four veterans and hugs all around from the man’s family.

And then the party was back on. The announcer called for an impromptu Intertribal dance, where everybody dances all together and the joy and relief in the arena was palpable, even among the children.

Pow Wow Kids

Of all the dancers, I think the children were my favorites to watch.  Kids are natural movers and shakers and these danced with such spirit. Their regalia was as elaborate as their parents’ and their dances no less intricate or skilled.

Little Fancy Feather Dancer

Seeing the Pow Wow kids take such joy in dancing and, at the same time, show such solemn respect for age-old traditions was truly profound. Those kids are being raised right and thanks to them, I have no doubt Pow Wows and other Native traditions will be around for a long time to come.

Click here for a schedule of upcoming powwows all over the US. I hope to attend many more.

Traditional Dress Dancers & Mount Wheeler

* Just a reminder: please don’t steal my photos! These belong to me and also to the dancers, people and tribes pictured. Please respect our rights. You can contact me at theblondecoyote@gmail.com.

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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17 Responses to Pow Wow!

  1. bntheboys@cox.net says:

    Beautiful Photos! I love Pow Wows! Montana was my first. I have a picture of my friend, a full Sioux dancing, I could never stop getting a blurry pic of him all the dancers were stop action on film but not T. Just for those who don’t know, these are mostly Alcohol and Weapon free events. Being a dancer is a big deal, very serious business! I love the smell of sweetgrass and sage that comes from the smudging of the dancers. Thanks for sharing these! Bea and The Bizzy Boy

  2. Great, great photos

  3. It looks like you will be down near our cabin in the next few days. I have been following your blog now for a while and will also be there. ( I will be doing some more work on our samll 200 sq foot off grid ca bin) I’m heading out later today from Nederland CO and plan to hit the cabin this evening. I will be done there for a few days.

    Our cabin is about 3 miles south of Tres Piedras.

    MoonTree Trail…is posted at the gate. I will be checking my email with a visit to the Chili Line Cafe in TP. We bought our land from the owners there Gil and Deb.

    Or you can contact via cell…303 638-1867

  4. jalal michael sabbagh.http://gravatar.com/jmsabbagh86@gmail.com says:

    Living culture.Tremendous beauty.jalal

  5. Ancientfoods says:

    Thank you so much for this! The photos are amazing. I have never Ben to the Pow Wow at the Taos pueblo and now I see that it should be on my list when I get bak there!

  6. Absolutely stunning photos! The colors come alive in each shot.

  7. bjregan says:

    Loved the pictures and descriptions, but now I’m regretting that we missed the event! Maybe next year.

  8. Reblogged this on barbsburnttree and commented:
    So interesting….I wanted to share!

  9. Andy says:

    All that colour! And I must confess: the chicken dance-I was worried.

  10. Beautiful pictures and a beautiful story.

  11. CarrieC says:

    What beautiful pictures – the colors and the smiles. Thank you for sharing,

  12. jljacobson says:

    GORGEOUS. That is all I can say.

  13. Hello Ms. Morton,
    Or would You rather Ms. Mary?
    I’ve only attended one a few years ago in Mississippi, but as good as it was – it surely can’t compare with this! Now that I am here in Fargo, North Dakota I plan on see more. Thank You for Sharing such a Wonderful Adventure as this! The Pictures are very nice, but from what You are saying You don’t want them reposted on such as Facebook, right? I have been an International Folk Dancer since 1981, and would like to share them with some of the Folks I have Danced with in Chicago, Virginia Beach, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge.
    If I use only the words, (by cutting, and pasting) and telling them to see Your Blog, then could they join it, and see them?
    Thank You for such an enjoyable Read!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Brian J. Weimer
    U.S. Navy Retired

  14. vietasgaisotne says:

    Explosion of colors!

  15. furrygnome says:

    Great story. I remember the first time I saw native dancers at Fort MacLeod in Alberta, it was totally mesmerizing.

  16. heidikins says:

    This is a gorgeous post, both photos and stories. Thank yo for sharing.

    There were a few Navajo families in my hometown and they would often perform at community events. A girl a year younger than me was training to be a “jingle dress” dancer–she called herself a Rain Dancer, I think–and a boy a year older than me was an Eagle Dancer, which was so incredible and athletic and just…I only saw him dance once, but it is emblazoned on my brain.


  17. Pingback: Taos Pow Wow 2013: Don’t Rain On My Regalia! | Travels with the Blonde Coyote

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