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American Indian Festival

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Powwow drum, song, dance and regalia guide

The American Indian Festival showcases the Drum and many forms of dance and regalia (style of dress) over its two-day period. Here’s a look at what you’ll be seeing:

The American Indian Drum and Head Singer
Without the Drum and the singers around it, American Indians could not have powwows. The Drum brings the heartbeat of Mother Earth to the powwow for all to feel and hear. Drumming brings everyone back into balance. Whether dancing, singing or just listening, people around the Drum can connect with Spirit.

In the tradition of the Southern Plains tribes, the Head Singer has complete control of what goes on at the Drum. The dance arena could be filled with good singers but they should not sit at the Drum unless they are asked by the Head Singer. A closed Drum means the Head Singer has chosen the singers he wants to sing with him. The Head Singer may open the Drum at his discretion to allow others to lead songs. Once a singer takes his place at the Drum, he should stay there until there is a break.

Songs are started with a lead line sung by the Head Singer. This lets the Drum and the dancers know what song is coming. After the lead line, the second (another person at the Drum) will take up the lead line, and everyone will join in with him. At this point the dancers begin to dance.

Categories of dance
The tradition of the dance goes back to the earliest cultures in the Americas.  Dance was used for many purposes: to honor people or animals, simulate brave deeds, praise ancestors and remember the Creator. Dance brought people and nature together in harmony of movement and spirit.

Most dances used in today’s powwow evolved from Northern and Southern Plains tribes. They are divided into contest, social, exhibit, traditional, intertribal and gourd dances.

  1. Contest Dances are the body of the powwow. The American Indian Festival is a Contest Powwow. Dancers compete for honor and prize money just as warriors used to compete for honor and pride. Each particular contest dance requires its own style of regalia. There are four basic men’s and four women’s contest dances (see below). Separate competitions are held for children and Elders (those over age 55).
  2. Social Dances encourage everyone to participate and have fun. A person does not need to be American Indian or wear regalia to join in. Two popular social dances are the Round Dance and the Two Step. There will be opportunities for Social Dances during the American Indian Festival. 
  3. Traditional and Exhibition Dances are performed to entertain viewers and highlight the expertise of the dancer. Two of the most popular exhibition dances in Kansas are the Hoop Dance and the Eagle Dance. Traditional dances come from specific tribes or cultural regions such as the Apache Fire Dance or the northwest coast Bear Dance.
  4. Intertribal Dances are performed by all dancers in regalia at the same time for their own enjoyment or to honor a person or family.

Contest Dances
Here the descriptions and histories of the contest dances that will take place during the American Indian Festival:

1. Fancy Dance
The Fancy Dance is the most colorful and exciting of all contest dances and is believed to be one of the first competition powwow dances. It was originally created by the Hethuska society of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma. The men display their individuality through a variety of movements. Their regalia features two feather bustles worn on their backs. The headdress is made of deer hair and porcupine, which is topped with one or two eagle feathers on a rocker that moves back and forth to the beat of the drum.

2. Fancy Shawl
Ladies Fancy Shawl is the newest form of women’s dance. Fancy Shawl is often called Northern Shawl, as it comes from the Northern tribes along the U.S.-Canadian border. It is very similar in movement and bright colors to the Men’s Fancy Dance. The ladies wear shawls over their shoulders and dance by jumping and spinning around, keeping time with the music. Particular emphasis is paid to the shawls that have elaborate designs, appliqué, ribbon work and painting.
3. The Gourd Dance
The Gourd Dance is a ceremonial dance that is believed to have been introduced by the Kiowa. It pays homage to our veterans and leaders, and it always precedes the evening portion of the powwow. The Gourd Dance is primarily a man’s dance, with women dancing at the edge of the arena. The regalia worn by a gourd dancer is not very elaborate. It usually consists of a long-sleeve shirt, pants, a gourd sash and a rattle. The gourd rattle is not a gourd, but is instead a tin or silver cylinder filled with beads on a beaded handle.
4. Grass  Dance
The Grass Dance is a very old Northern dance that is rich in history and popularity. It is believed by some to have originated with the Omaha. Dancers’ fluid, graceful motions and the abundance of fringe on the regalia simulate the sway of grass in the breeze on the plains. This dance may have received its name from dancers who once tied grass to their belts to produce a swaying effect.
5. The Jingle Dress Dance
This dance is thought to have originated with the Ojibwe Tribe of Minnesota. As the story goes, a medicine man's granddaughter was very ill and not strong enough to dance on her own. A spirit wearing a jingle dress came to the medicine man in a dream. He was told his granddaughter would be cured if he made a jingle dress and put it on her. When he awoke, he and his wife proceeded to assemble the dress. When they were finished, they put the dress on their granddaughter. With continued help, she danced several times in the dress and soon gathered her strength enough to dance by herself.
6. The Straight Dance
The Straight Dance is believed by many to have evolved from the Hethuska dances of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma. The dance recounts the adventures of a hunting or war party that is on the trail of an animal or enemy. It is a dignified dance, where the men keep a steady, flowing pace that is not interrupted with fancy moves or extra footwork. The Straight Dance is known among dancers as the “Gentleman’s Dance.”
7. Women’s Buckskin
Women's Buckskin is one of the oldest and most beautiful of the women’s dances. Often referred to as “Women’s Traditional,” the dancers stand tall, straight and proud. Their gliding steps make it look as if they are on air. This is a sophisticated dance style, and it is not restricted to one age group. Fringe on the dress and shawl sway naturally with the movement of the woman’s feet in rhythm with the drum. During a contest, each individual is judged on the ability to stay in time and stop with the Drum.
8. Women’s Cloth
This style, which is danced by both Northern and Southern tribes, is slow, graceful, bold and proud. The handmade buckskin or cloth leggings, beadwork and intricate ribbon designs come together to compliment a beautiful cloth or long wool dress with open sleeves. During a contest, each individual is judged on the ability to stay in time and stop with the Drum.

Significance of Bald and Golden Eagle Feathers
To most American Indians, the Eagle is sacred. The birds are considered to be messengers to the spirits in the sky and close to the heavens where the Creator lives. The feather, universally symbolic to American Indians, is considered to possess the power and spirit of the bird.
Before it is given to an individual, every eagle feather is blessed in a traditional ceremony so only good will be passed on to the owner. If the owner is respectful of the feather, it is believed that he will receive guidance throughout his life.

Feathers are seen in great abundance at powwows, adorning the traditional and fancy dancers’ elaborate regalia, ceremonial items and other implements.  Should an eagle feather drop to the ground from any dancer’s regalia, the dancer does not pick it up. It is only after a special prayer by a highly respected individual that the eagle feather is picked up and returned to the owner.


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