powwow dance traditions
St. Paul, Minnesota
Colorful regalia, resounding drumming, and fancy footwork are part of the rich panoply of experiences at a Native American powwow. The Native Pride Dancers brings this excitement and artistry to audiences across the world, sharing their stories and teaching about the innovative blend of modern and traditional Native American dance styles featured in their performances.
While ceremonial gatherings in Native American communities stretch back centuries, modern powwows emerged from more recent ceremonies that began in the Great Plains in the 19th century. When the U.S. government seized Native lands, a period of forced migration and upheaval resulted in greater intertribal exchange and solidarity among Plains tribes. As new traditions diffused throughout the region, they became part of homecoming celebrations for families and communities separated by government removal. In the 20th century, warrior traditions were brought to the forefront of modern powwows during World War I and II, as they became a space to celebrate and memorialize Native American veterans. When thousands of Plains Indians were relocated to cities across the country in the 1950s, new intertribal collaborations were created. As Native American culture urbanized, the number of powwows increased, leading to today’s powwow circuit, traveling performance groups like the Native Pride Dancers, and bringing about the rise of dance competitions and other contests in powwows.
Based in St. Paul Minnesota, the Native Pride Dancers are made up of cultural educators, musicians, dancers, and singers who are members of numerous tribal nations including Meskwaki, Navajo, Dakota, Lakota, Ojibwe, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Pueblo. Their performances incorporate information about the dances, the regalia, and meaning and importance of the dances presented.
The group’s founder and artistic director is Larry Yazzie. A member of the Meskwaki Nation in Central Iowa, Larry is a world champion fancy dancer who consistently takes top honors at powwows in the United State and Canada. Dancing from age seven, Larry has been competing since his early teens. Joining Larry at the Richmond Folk Festival are the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Rebecca Roberts. Rebecca is a member of the Red Willow People of Taos, New Mexico. She is a jingle dress dancer and fancy shawl dancer. A member of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations of Oklahoma, Michael is a champion fancy dancer and singer. He will sing and drum at the festival.
In Richmond, Larry will present fancy, men’s traditional, and eagle dances. The fancy dance originated in the 1950s, possibly in Oklahoma, to attract powwow visitors. Dancers make their outfits as colorful and brilliant as possible, and the dance requires fancy footsteps, quick acrobatics, and stamina. The best dancers are able to keep time to the extremely fast drumbeat and stop on the last beat of the drum. The men’s northern traditional dance is credited to the Lakota, though many tribes have adapted some form of the Lakota version. Slower than the fancy dance, it depicts warriors preparing for battle, with the drummer using heavy strokes meant to evoke gunfire. The dancer carries an eagle feather fan and a staff and wears bells on his ankles. Dedicated to veterans, the eagle dance simulates an eagle in flight. Each step represents a prayer, which eagles are believed to carry to the Creator, as well as the movement of an eagle’s majestic, powerful wings.
Rebecca will present the jingle and fancy shawl dances. The jingle dress dance—also known as the healing dance, for the first dresses used in healing a medicine man’s granddaughter—originated with the Ojibwe. Smooth movement and poise are features of this dance; instead of high steps and fancy footwork, the dancer moves in a simple zigzag step to make the jingles sway. The jingles, rolled-up tin lids attached with colorful ribbons, create a sound similar to rain fall. The women’s fancy shawl dance, like the men’s fancy dance, also originated in the 1950s. Inspired by the movement of butterflies, the dance has intricate footwork and spinning that show the fringe on the shawl and the colors of the dancer’s outfit.