AN INTRODUCTION TO WOMEN’S ROLES IN CONTEMPORARY POWWOWS

Native Americans live a realm between Native and Western culture and society. This realm is complex because it not only the diversity in Native American cultures alone, but the diversity in how these cultural traditions react with Western ones. There are over 500 federally recognized Native American Nations[1] in the U.S alone[2]. Each illustrates their own culture, traditions, and world views. Although their individuality is extensive, Native Nations conflict and coincide with Western cultures, traditions, and world views similarly. Understanding the Native American position can best be interpreted by Hankivsky’s approach from their “Intersectionality Primer[3]”:

“Intersectionality promotes an understanding of human beings as shaped by the interaction of different social locations (e.g., ‘race’/ethnicity, Indige- neity, gender, class, sexuality, geography, age, disability/ability, migration status, religion). These interactions occur within a context of connected systems and structures of power (e.g., laws, policies, state governments and other political and economic unions, religious institutions, media).” (Hankivsky 1)

When exploring the gender roles of contemporary powwows, we must apply intersectionality to the Native American identity, and recognize that doing so captures its uniqueness of that nation, and even the community and individual’s beliefs.

 

The interactions of beliefs and traditions in the realm of Native and Western culture and society can be both invasive, and conflicting. Native Americans have endured genocide, massacre, biological warfare, forced religious conversion, and Westernizing boarding schools at the hands of White settlers[4]– an assimilation resulting in an incredible loss of cultural ideas and traditions. Settlers also forced the establishment of concepts such as capitalism, the patriarchy, and ‘Otherness[5]’ to name a few. Living between Western and Native perspectives puts tribes in intricate positions. While they attempt to revive, and embrace their Native traditions much of these traditions have been compromised by assimilation. For example, an urban Native may have different or altered gender roles or practices than a Native living in a reservation, where elders, Native homelands, and families are more relative to their everyday. A Native person is conflicted with “negotiat[ing] ‘tradition’ and modernity’ and ‘indigenous’ and ‘western’ ways of being” to improve[6] their ways of living (Zevallos 3). Negotiating, and essentially blurring Native American and Western culture is not limited to tradition, perspective, and history. Gender roles also interact/conflict through ‘negotiation’, ‘tradition’, and ‘modernity’ of Western ideas within contemporary Native communities and powwows.

 

Intersecting negotiations, traditions, and modernity can be seen in contemporary powwows (Perea 20), making a powwow considerably difficult to define. Just as you may find an array of definitions for gender and sexuality among non-Native people in the United States, you will find an array of definitions for powwow among Native Americans. Attempting to strictly label powwows renders them non-representative, because a singular static label is not intersectional. Powwow traditions are greatly affected by the participating tribes’ cultures- and therefore regional location- i.e. environment and geography- which are then also affected by the region’s specific colonial history (Diamond and Perea[7]).

 

Perea attempts to define powwows as “intertribal Native American social gatherings built around a shared repertoire of songs and dances.” (Perea 18). There is singing, dancing, and celebration of themselves, and celebration of their relationship to the world around them. Powwows are essentially public, private, or communal spaces for intertribal communication, which includes the practice and exchange of tribal songs and dances[8], religious ceremonies, and food. McCluskey adds that powwows were “special gathering to eat, celebrate, create new friendships, meet old friends” and “hunters would invite their friends and relatives to share their good fortune.” Dancing was done to honor their host, and weaving, quill work, and other finery were displayed and exchanged. Dancing became the main event over time, despite the federal government’s law against of Native American dance and religion made in the 1880s (McCluskey 6). The music, ceremony, fine art, food, and intertribal practices offer unique and specific ways for gender to manifest itself within these celebratory events.

 

Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 15.04.39
Photo from a Powwow at Wyoming Frontier Days during 1920/30s Era

 

Gender participation in powwows evolved with major protest points in history. The 60s 70s saw an increase in the powwow’s political meaning with Red Power Movement, and even reflected other justice movements happening during the 60s- 70s. The 80s and 90s saw an emergence of cultural specificity within powwows. By this period, enough time has passed to allow for less hesitant reclamation of their Native traditions. Though there was an increase tribal-specificity, powwows continued as intertribal events. Over the past 10 years, there has been an increase in female powwow singers. Ideas behind who sings or dances are powerful, because they reflect interrelated issues of power and access to culture (Perea 22-24).

 

pahrump-powwow-dancers
Photo from here.

 

Gender participation in powwows vary because powwows exist on separate timelines, and intertribal agendas. Nations today have different timelines in regards to colonization, progressiveness, and activism, and powwow evolution has not been the same for every Nation. On top of their varying evolution, powwows are intertribal where what one tribe is most concerned with in regards to gender ‘equality’, may not be as urgent of a concern for another. Consider Nations from Canada versus the United States. Hoefnagels points out that powwows are not as old in Canada. In fact, in some regions they are only a few decades old. The Global Indigenous movement[9], and modernity can drastically change dances and traditions, putting to question whether contemporary powwows are actually more susceptible to changing gender roles than in older powwow traditions (Hoefnagels 6). Time, and individuality concerning the evolution of powwows correlate with the increase in women’s participation throughout the 20th, and 21st century (Ibid).

 

With the increase in women’s participation in powwows comes normalization. Yet, set in stone standards for normal[10] gender traditions within powwows are impossible. If, as Perea notes, there can be no one definition of powwow to begin with: “Explanations of powwows, even within the same tribes will vary” (Perea 18), how can there be one definition for gender traditions within powwows? Gender manifests itself intersectionally through culture, spirituality and personal experience (Perea 18). Powwows then, simply become spaces for gender and gender roles to thrive and develop.

 

2011 Gathering of Nations
Photo from <www.powwows.com>

 

Issues of gender in Native culture have increased in concern. This may directly correspond to the fact that women have become increasingly prominent as dancers despite marginalization prior to mid 20th century as Hoefnagels states. I believe this may have to do with the power of dance and music in Native societies. There has been change in representation and equitability, and women have had primary roles in “behind the scenes” management, organization, and execution in powwow activities. They even used to outnumber men at powwows around the 1920s, where they were the ones to revive culture and tradition, which included making regalia, and teaching traditions to children (Hoefnagels 8). Dance has a considerable amount of power as a Cherokee dancer says that,

“To dance is to pray,
To pray is to heal,
To heal is to give,
To give is to live,
To live is to dance” -Marijo Moore.

While women held power “behind the scenes” (Hoefnagels 8), their increased participation in powerful dance and music may ideologically conflict with their typical roles within the community.
In general, women in Native American societies are highly valued because of their position within the life cycle. Women are typically respected as bearers of life, and in some Nations, are considered more powerful because of their connection to Mother Earth[11]. Keeping in mind that gender roles seriously vary from region to region, I will highlight a few major distinctions in their community roles from selected Nations:

“In Cherokee society, women owned land. Plains Indians traced their lineage through their mothers. Iroquois women controlled their families and could initiate divorce, and Blackfoot women owned the tipi in which their families lived. One important difference between Native American and white societies was the respect women received for their contribution to the home[12].” 

Apache: All children learn tasks that are stereotypically associated with both female and male.
Eastern Woodland Societies: Women own the home, while men travel.
Algonquian: Travel is associated with both genders
Narraganssett: Men help clear and cultivate crops, assist with harvesting, and women have authority over the home.
Lanape: Both genders have places in agriculture. Hunting is based on age, and ability. Agriculture leans toward women, and hunting towards men. Women own the land for hunting and agriculture.
Hopi: Is a matrilineal society. They have no male centered political structure.
Navajo: (along with many other tribes) recognize a third gender “one who is transformed”
Nez Perce: Have specific gender roles, men hunt, fish, protect families, and are council and headmen. Women own the household, conduct medicinal plant harvest, edible plant harvest, but do not participate in office. Traditional knowledge is passed in both genders.
Sioux: Lakota, Dakota, Nakoda are patrilineal and have specific gender roles[13].

Many of these traditions are being revisited today. Nevertheless, “Native American notions of identity are communalrelating their role in the community to a person’s status (Hoefnagels 8). While women’s community roles are highly valued, they may not necessarily be ‘equal’ traditionally speaking.

 

Gender equality in Native American society is not the same as contemporary ideas of equality in Western society. This makes it difficult for a Westerner to understand what ‘equality’ might be perceived as in Native communities. Generally, there is complementarity of the sexes, which is a long existing “common philosophical paradigm” (Hoefnagels 1). Complementarity is not equivalent to meanings of equality, or “sameness,” found in Western feminist perspectives. It describes the division of work and other responsibilities within the community. Women are strong as men because of their contribution to their community as an interview by the author in February of 2004 with Jimmy Dick explains:

“They say the women give birth to a nation. They raise all the kids, and some of them are leaders, some of them are medicine people, and they’re the ones that pick the leaders in the communities, and that’s a complementary role too. And the men, they provide for their family, and hunt and all that, give their life for his family. Same way, in the way the woman is too” (Ibid).

A person’s work and responsibilities coincide with their individual strengths, and abilities where those of either gender or gender role are no more important than the other’s. Women’s and men’s gender roles are meant to be balanced in almost all Native societies, and the balance between them is taught through connection, rather than separation. Hoefnagels highlights Yvonne Boyer’s comments on this gender balance:

“Our nations do not separate men from women, although we recognize that each has its own unique roles and responsibilities. The teachings of creation require that only together will the two sexes provide a complete philosophical and spiritual balance. We are nations and that requires the equality of the sexes” (Hoefnagels 20).

Complementarity of the sexes is a balance relocating itself within Native communities. It is especially prevalent, and debated within contemporary powwows.

 

Women’s purpose in powwow song and dance are similar to their purpose in communities. Both males and females participate in dance, and contest dancing. They have the same number of dances, and number of age categories. Head dancers can be male or female. The powwow committee[14] has no gender specificity. Let us look at the general powwow form to introduce the similarity of gender roles between the powwow, and the community.

 

Subject to interpretation, McCluskey describes most powwow ceremonies as representations of the life cycle, which women typically represent as child bearers. Circular forms are especially used at larger powwows. Perea describes them in four circles, an idea passed on by his teacher, Dr. Hoehner. Perea’s understanding is tribally specific, inter-tribally practiced, as well as personal. The powwow drum is part of the first circle. It is at the center because its voice attracts all singers, dancers, and others to participate. It also represents the human’s relationship with the environment around them, as the drum is made of animal parts and other natural materials. Male singers that sit around the drum are part of the second circle. They are responsible for the “heartbeat” by representing the relationship of humans and the world, through striking the drum and singing. The female singers stand behind the drum and the men as a part of the third circle. They stand there, based on one interpretation, out of respect for their power and role as mothers. “The women. . .encircling the male singers and the drum in the same way that a pregnant mother encircles her baby.” The dancers, and other community members (as well as spectators) make up the fourth circle (Perea 25-27). Although specifications for gender in powwows (song and dance) have representative gender roles, are these traditional representations truly complementary?

 

These gender specific roles are debated as complementary, or divisive within contemporary powwows. Powwow are where contemporary lenses of Native and Western ideas of ‘equality’ clash may clash. Does restricting women from striking the drum, and keeping them as supportive of men hinder their participation in ceremony? Does having women stand behind men in powwow circles, and joining in singing only towards the ends of phrases enforce patriarchal power structures? To the Native perspective, these positions are meant to “help” men sing. Traditionally, men aren’t as in touch with Mother Earth, and need to strike the drum to reach that level of connection, and need the support of the woman to do so. Many women embrace these powwow teachings, viewing them as valuable, and meaningful to living their cultural traditions. Opposing them may be seen disrespectful or unhealthy for the culture. One powwow participant, Kim Anderson, says that a “better understanding of these teachings can be empowering for women” and that “Through the perpetuation, promotion, and celebration of traditional and social constructs of complementarity and balance between Aboriginal men and women at contemporary powwows, [nurtures a] reinforcement of precolonial values and social constructs may be accomplished” (Hoefnagels 23). Following these traditional roles may be seen as respecting traditional ways of being and doing, which in turn is a resistance of “colonial and patriarchal paradigms” (Ibid).

 

 

While some argue that traditional teachings stress that women’s complementary roles are a return to precolonial social structures, others argue that these cultural traditions reinforce gender restrictions, and ultimately sexism (Hoefnagels 21). Many criticize some traditions, seeing a direct link between “traditions” and “restriction” (Ibid). Despite their complementary roles in powwow song and dance, women are not equally represented in other aspects of a powwow. They lack positions of leadership, and music making. Is this marginalization, and possible subordination of women linked to internalized colonialism? Are these restrictions to public participation linked to a patriarchal and colonized state of mind? The reinforcement of complementarity of the sexes in powwows is arguably disrupted by the predominant male public presence. Some see this public male dominance as a means of hiding and silencing women. This is especially enforced by the Master of Ceremonies (MC), whose leading position innately enforces male leadership in powwows. Powwows support the structure of a community, but are they necessarily representing the gender structures and values in those communities?

 

One account reflecting this conflict of complementarity vs internalized colonialism challenge is narrated by Hoefnagels, when a male MC brought a culturally knowledgeable woman to speak to the audience. People approached him afterward, applauding him for embracing woman leadership, which he hesitated to accept. They then asked him to MC another powwow leading with Native women, to which he was also hesitant towards. Part of his reasoning was that including women was not exactly his intention, he had simply included a knowledgeable person in his production. He also noted that he was not able to endorse such a change in custom. Traditions are valued, for the most part, above anything else, and consulting elders on such change is deemed as a priority (Hoefnagel 10). Introducing a fairly new idea- women MCs, might have affected him more as a direct challenge to his sense of power as an MC than a threat tradition. Or maybe these thoughts acted simultaneously. Men and women, because of colonization, have lost much of their power in governing, resources, traditions, education, etc. within their communities. Does the MC position create a sense of control for men, a sense of control that they are not experiencing in their everyday lives? However divisive or complementary, women’s roles in powwows are changing.

 

Appearances of women in song and dance is a recent, and growing change. Women’s drum groups have taken ground in many communities. They have gained acceptance in their communities, through teaching, and local media. They find many places to perform, if not at powwows locally, online, or privately. The work that women’s drum groups are doing is extremely valuable for Native women’s empowerment, but as Hoefnagels concludes, many people are simply not ready to accept women as powwow drummers (Ibid).

 

 

By whatever means, as a female powwow drummer or not, “First Nations women need to battle marginalization and dehumanization to achieve actualization within themselves and their nation” (Hoefnagels 20). This is a tricky thing for Native women to achieve because they play dual roles as nurturers of families, keepers of culture, and rejecters of Eurocentric values, all while fighting for “legal, economic, and political equality” (Ibid). The question now is whether women in powwows can maintain their intersectional role as a Native and modern woman without dis-valuing their individuality within one community, or another.

 

otg-nativenationsrise2
Photo from ‘On the Ground’ Show Website

 

Existing contradictorily to the Western tendency to categorize and generalize multi-influential identities, Native women’s roles in powwows can only be understood as an intersection in the realm of Native and Western culture. Gender roles in powwow communities need understandings of complementarity, not only of their place in Native/Western society, but of  the balance of women’s participation in powwow events. This awareness points to new ways women as key participants in powwow culture can bring leadings understandings of the intricate societal and cultural gender based conflicts Native people encounter today. It is not possible for women to rely on one meaning or another, Native or Western, to find balance with themselves and the powwow community. The essay attempts to explore the types of analysis, and cultural gaps that help build our approach to Natives’ existence as intersectional, and multi-influential. We should not forget that powwows and their gender roles may change and grow, as “powwows provide space for creation and negotiation of culture through intertribal music and dance for successive generations of participants” (Perea 18). We have to consider the ability, and essential need for Native women themselves to approach their own gender roles as pre-colonial and modern, in ways that allow them to reclaim, reinvent, and share their identities within powwow communities.

“THE FIRST STEP IN
RECLAIMING MY POWER WAS
FORGIVING THE PEOPLE WHO
ATTEMPTED TO MAKE ME
POWERLESS. THEY COULDN’T
FIND THEIR OWN POWER BUT
SAW MINE AS AN
ORNAMENT TO THEIR PRIDE.
BUT IT WASN’T FOR KEEPS.
I WALKED BACK UP TO THEM
WHOLEHEARTEDLY & TOOK MY
POWER BACK & SHOWED THEM
HOW THEY SHOULD’VE BEEN
WEARING IT THE WHOLE TIME.
FEATHER IN MY HAIR, I WALKED
AWAY LIKE THE WARRIOR I HAD
ALWAYS BEEN.”

-LUTA

 

 

Notes

[1] There is controversy within the use of terms “tribe” vs “Nation.” The U.S uses these terms interchangeably, while Canada leans towards “Nation.” Both have the same definition. For this essay, I will use them interchangeably. It’s important to note that some Canadian First Peoples find “tribe” to be derogatory. Perea, John-Carlos. Intertribal Native American Music in the United States: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Pg 11. Print.

[2] Hogg, George Thomas. “Understanding Contemporary Tribal Governments.” Congress Shall Have Power: To Regulate Commerce with Foreign Nations, and among the Several States, and with the Indian Tribes. Ithaca, NY: National Congress of American Indians, 1892. 4. Print.

[3] Hankivsky, Olena. Women’s Stud- Ies Quarterly. 2nd ed. N.p.: American Sociological Association Teaching Resources Center, 2000. Print.

[4] Spring, Joel. “Native Americans: Deculturalization, Schooling, and Globalization.” Native Americans: Deculturalization, Schooling, and Globalization (2010): n. pag. 2010. Web.

[5]  ‘Otherness’ enforces dominant Western historical and colonial hierarchies that have changed Native Americans’ perceptions of themselves over time. ‘Otherness’ attempts to enforce Western ideas of normal. ‘Otherness’ as an example, has referenced how Christian missionaries and White settlers viewed Native Americans as a racial group, and/or how they viewed Two-Spirits people as abominations to God. Zevallos, Dr Zuleyka. “Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People.” The Other Sociologist. N.p., 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[6] Improve does not imply that Native ways of living are lesser than non-Native ways.

[7] Diamond and Perea define powwows in their textbooks from “Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture.” Diamond, Beverley. Native American Music in Eastern North America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Perea, John-Carlos. Intertribal Native American Music in the United States: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
[8] Gourd dance, Grand entry, Flag song, Intertribal songs, Contest songs, Round dance songs, honor songs, Men’s traditional dance, Men’s fancy dance, Men’s Grass dance, Sneak up dance, War dance, Traditional women’s dance, Women’s fancy shawl dance, Jingle dress dance, Team dancers, Owl dance, Round dance, The Crow Hop, Blanket dance, Exhibition Dance, and Dropped Eagle Feather dance. McCluskey, Murton. “Your Guide to Understanding and Enjoying PowvWows.” Indian Education for All(2009): n. pag. Office of Public Instruction, 2009. Web.
[9] A global indigenous movement creates its own set of pan-Indian traditions and ideas that may be in conflict with specific Nations’ traditions. “Home.” Indigenous Movement. Indigenous Movement, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[10] Warner describes normal in “The Trouble With Normal” as something “certified, approved, as meeting a set of normative standards. Warner makes theargument that what is considered ‘Normal’ for gender and sexuality cannot be determined because ‘Normal’ is a concept with no grounding. Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.

[11] Jacobs, Sue, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. “Two-spirit People: Native American Gender, Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality.” Google Books. University of Illinois Press, 1997. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

[12] “Indians, Insanity, and American History Blog.” Indians Insanity and American History Blog. WordPress, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

[13] ” Jacobs, Sue, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. “Two-spirit People: Native American Gender, Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality.” Google Books. University of Illinois Press, 1997. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

[14] The Powwow Committee is made up of “volunteers (from tribal government or organization) and their responsibilities include planning, fund-raising, publicity, set dates, make rules, set policy, etc. Members of the committee are respected members of the community and are usually able to get the support of the community in helping with the various jobs or activities that need to be carried out. To show their appreciation for the honor of serving on the committee and for the community’s cooperation, the pow wow committee members, or at least subcommittee heads, will usually have a give-away during the pow wow.” McCluskey, Murton. “Your Guide to Understanding and Enjoying PowvWows.” Indian Education for All(2009): n. pag. Office of Public Instruction, 2009. Web.

 

Works Cited

Diamond, Beverley. Native American Music in Eastern North America: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Perea, John-Carlos. Intertribal Native American Music in the United States: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
Hogg, George Thomas. “Understanding Contemporary Tribal Governments.” Congress Shall Have Power: To Regulate Commerce with Foreign Nations, and among the Several States, and with the Indian Tribes. Ithaca, NY: National Congress of American Indians, 1892. 4. Print.
Spring, Joel. “Native Americans: Deculturalization, Schooling, and Globalization.” Native Americans: Deculturalization, Schooling, and Globalization (2010): n. pag. 2010. Web.

Hankivsky, Olena. Women’s Stud- Ies Quarterly. 2nd ed. N.p.: American Sociological Association Teaching Resources Center, 2000. Print. <https://www.sfu.ca/iirp/documents/resources/101_Final.pdf>

Zevallos, Dr Zuleyka. “Rethinking Gender and Sexuality: Case Study of the Native American “Two Spirit” People.” The Other Sociologist. N.p., 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Warner, Michael. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2003. Print.

McCluskey, Murton. “Your Guide to Understanding and Enjoying PowvWows.” Indian Education for All(2009): n. pag. Office of Public Instruction, 2009. Web.

“Home.” Indigenous Movement. Indigenous Movement, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

Jacobs, Sue, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang. “Two-spirit People: Native American Gender, Identity, Sexuality, and Spirituality.” Google Books. University of Illinois Press, 1997. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

“Indians, Insanity, and American History Blog.” Indians Insanity and American History Blog. WordPress, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2017.

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