The Stanford Powwow

I took Kelly to the native American powwow held annually on the Stanford campus. I always feel awkward going to a powwow, because it is a very native American event, and I have no grounding whatsoever in native American culture. On occassions I encounter natives in my regular setting who are constantly saying “sorry”; I feel exactly the same as those out-of-place natives when I go to their powwow because I know I’m always making cultural mistakes. For instance, I got an inkling that digging in my backpack for a few last sweaty grimy bills and some random change is far more acceptable than handing over a credit card and asking an Indian vendor to charge it, even if they accept credit cards. And when I was looking for a specific vendor, my questions as to his whereabouts (like most questions I ever had) were answered with “I don’t know” until a native woman took pity on me and gently told me “take time and look around” which is, well, the native American answer to a lot of questions. And I have to admit, it did eventually get me to the right place.

My nervousness wasn’t aided by the thundery sound of the singing for the gourd dance. Last time I went to the powwow, I watched the gourd dance and found it mind-numbingly boring. It was like going to a church service for an unfamiliar religion in an even more unfamiliar language. As best as I can remember from the announcer’s introduction, it’s a memorial dance honoring fallen Indian soldiers. It goes on and on, and it’s quite a serious thing: men perform the dance, but women on the sidelines will get up and dance along, and taking pictures is forbidden. It honors all fallen soldiers from the beginning of time to contemporary conflicts, though at the end, the announcer specifically mentioned General Custer. I have the impression he’s kind of a cross between Hitler and Osama bin Laden in native American culture.

Of all the ethnic groups in the U.S., the natives have the most legitimate grievances, but they’re also not from a particularly whiny culture. I only heard about the urban relocation of Californian Indians when I was asking about native poverty at the TANF booth. I had no idea who Leonard Peltier was until I saw a booth for him at the powwow:


Mostly, the natives focus on being proud of their culture and remembering their history, and tend to have rather a tongue-in-cheek viewpoint. The last time I was there “Native Pride” shirts and caps were popular, and they’re still a mainstay, but this was the hot design:


It says “Homeland Security: Defending our land since 1492.”

After the gourd dance, it was time for the fancy dancer competition. I have the impression that while the gourd dance was religious, the fancy dancing is more of an athletic event. It is spectacular, and we actually couldn’t get close enough to actually see it since it’s something everyone wants to see, but many of the dancers were walking around before and after the competition, as well as on the sidelines. Here is a dancer and his cute daughter:


These guys were having too good of a time on the sidelines to make serious faces for me. I think the one guy is trying while his friend is laughing at the attempt:


This was the most amazing fancy dancer outfit, IMHO, was the one below. My formal picture didn’t come out, and this one was from a distance:


It’s amazing from the feathered crown and beaded eye rings to the massive bells on his furred ankles. The outfits are equally amazing in the back, where there are often one or more massive rings of plumage:


The women participate in the fancy dances in a jingle dress competition. The dresses are covered in cone-shaped jingle bells, like this one: jingle-dress.jpg

I actually felt a little sorry for the natives who were in the more everyday native outfits, which are also unique and colorful, but not as awesome as the competition costumes.

I had a bit of a gyppy tummy, but that didn’t stop me from getting myself a piece of frybread. It’s like an evil all-fat poofy flour tortilla and it’s sooooo good. You can eat frybread plain, as I did that day, or put anything you want on it, from beans and cheese to strawberries and cream. As ethnic comfort foods go, frybread is one of the best.

Since I am such a tard on native culture, the most appealing thing to me at the powwow is the various booths, largely selling handmade crafts, including the ubiquitous dream catchers, poncho-like coats, and jewelery. Some of it was quite similar to the sorts of items you might find in a Mexican mercado, like embroidered smocks and dresses:


and woolen caps in a Peruvian style:


I enjoy the prints of John Balloue, a Cherokee artist whose work I can’t download from (but you can still see on) his website. Kelly was fascinated with the small animal sculptures at a booth that featured work from Zuni, Navajo, and Hopi artists. I think if it’s Zuni, it’s a fetish; if it isn’t, it’s folk art. Here are some economic indicator bears.


OK, I’m sure they have some different significance within native American culture, but I in the culture I come from, that’s an indicator graph engraved on that bear. Personally, I admired the woodwinds, like this flute shaped like a bird:


I overheard the artist telling a musician that the instruments play more like a recorder than like a contemporary flute. Who I’d really wanted to see was the artist who made woodwinds shaped even more like animals, who turned out to be the flute-maker’s apprentice. I finally found him, where he showed off his death whistle for me:


Since I’d seen him last, he’d advanced to making amazing four-hole whistles in the shapes of turtles, armadillos, and frogs, as well as more colorful death whistles.

After encountering native American culture, I also don’t understand the fetish environmentalists have for native ways. One of the more ethnic booths specialized in animal pieces, such as bones, shells, horns, tails, and faces, like these fox faces:


I have no idea what I’d do with a fox face, though in a nearby booth, I saw a vendor had turned turtle shells into small purses:


I also saw a quiver made out of a coyote pelt. I think that’s the sort of stuff that would give an animal activist apoplexy, but maybe they just conveniently ignore it.

As for Kelly, she just had an all-around good time. She hit up the Indian health service for candy so often, they had her put down her demographics (first name, age, sex, ethnicity) for their outreach program. And yes, the Indian health service was handing out candy, presumably all the better to get find the people who need their services. A man at the voter registration booth gave her a sparkly necklace as well as some bubblegum. And I couldn’t resist getting her some ankle bells so she could jingle like the dancers.

As we left, I saw this set of bumper stickers, which I thought captured the spirit of the powwow as well as anything could:


I always wonder how the natives feel about the hippie Indian wannabes, because being American Indian obviously involves more than simply wearing turquoise jewelery, eating peyote and passing out in a sweat lodge. I’m not even sure being Indian is all that cool other than to those who romanticize selected aspects of native culture. For instance, I’ve met some Mexican immigrants who are markedly Indian to me, as indicated by their horsemanship or demeanor, but they’d be rather insulted to be called Indian. So, even though I don’t fit in (and probably especially since I don’t), powwows are a great thing: it’s a place where it’s cool to be native, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.


  1. Lenore


    I appreciate your attempts to enculturate yourself, but you have many inaccuracies. Unfortunately whites listen best to whites. We do not refer to all these outfits as fancy dance outfits or regalia. The Jingle dress is not fancy–it’s a sacred medicine dress. The one bustle regalia of the men is a traditional dancer. Two bustles would signify a fancy dancer.

  2. Dotti

    I myself have attended a pow wow, I myself have found myself humbled and captivated at the same time.

    My inner child wanted to be the Indian not the Cowboy. The Cowboys were loud, mean and selfish. The Indians were gentle, artistic, thank ful and could be down right wicked when provoked.

    At the pow wow I realized that I also felt guilty, I felt that the wrong people have ruled this continent…The “Hydrolic Fracturing of our earth for Methane gas as a fuel is making me angry and sad for the Earths Future”.

    Our powerful nasty cowboys have ravaged this earth and now we are left with the need to rape it for fuel to produce power.

    So this is my personal apology to the Indian Nation. And my hope is that there are enough lessons saved by tradition, to teach to the white survivors to help build a new peaceful, humble world after this one is gone.


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