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Powwow etiquette dictates respect for tradition


Norman Moyah Cardinal and Pamela Sexsmith, Windspeaker Contributors








Protocol and etiquette.... the ancient way to honor traditions, and acknowledge the ancestors, animal spirits and the Creator.

The bottom line...positive, respectful behavior at all times, with no drugs or alcohol ever allowed on the grounds in powwow country.

Powwow is an annual celebration of song, dance and ceremony that comes full circle each year after a whole year of careful planning and hard work. With a keen eye to honoring Native tradition, part of that work and planning involves a deep regard and acknowledgment of the elaborate etiquette and protocol that binds Aboriginal people together.

There is a fine line between protocol at traditional and competitive powwows. The hospitality differs slightly as do the public and private ceremonies.

Competitive powwow, by its very nature, is fast paced, high pressured and commercial.

Today's competitive powwows draw large crowds and boast commercial midways that include food concessions, crafts booths, bingo, handgame tents, and even helicopter rides.

The pressure of dealing with thousands of visitors, tourists, dancers and drum groups has created a need to separate sacred and public ceremonies.

Pipe ceremonies and prayers, which used to be held in the public dancing arbor, now take place in a separate lodge, keeping sacred objects like pipes and rattles away from crowds, children and women on their moon time.

Traditional powwow, on the other hand, is more relaxed and family oriented.

The protocol of old time traditional powwow demands that guests, visitors and Elders be fed and looked after by the host reserve. This includes honorariums to all drummers and dancers to help with travel expenses - and wood and food be delivered right to the campfires.

Protocol and etiquette for a dancer is the same at both types of powwow.

The moment you take on the role of an initiated dancer, a great deal of pressure is put on you by the people, not only to perform, but to be a role model, to be honorable. When you put on regalia, you take on the essence of the sacred animal, honor culture, tradition and the Creator.

"Being humble should be the number one priority for any dancer, thankful that you are allowed to dance with the animals you wear, your sweat and suffering are for the people, making people proud of who you are, showing your respect, because you represent them," said Elder Antoine Littlewolf.

One of the unwritten rules of powwow is that no one should touch another's regalia without first being given permission by the maker or owner.

Eagle feathers, which traditionally are earned, and all feathers, for that matter, should be treated with special care. It's necessary to be humble and respectful to each feather being worn. The spirits of all animals being worn must be respected above all else.

Care and respect of the sacred circle extends, not only to respecting the arbor, sacred objects and other dancers, but to the whole atmosphere, the ground themselves, mother earth.

Good etiquette and respect demands that we care for the earth, stop trashing our powwow grounds with garbage and waste, to do everything we can to be more self sufficient. Take your own food, build a fire, camp out, using your own utensils and cups - stop relying on junk food.

In keeping with the true spirit of the ancient hunter-gatherer society, it's necessary to do away with European influences. Powwow is a time to celebrate real traditions, who First Nations people really are. The whole world is watching. What do they see?

Elders are firmly rooted in tradition - our source and inspiration. Correct protocol towards Elders and veterans includes shaking of hands as a sign of respect.

They are also given a place of honor, the best seats in the house. Permission should always be sought when photographing Elders.

The dancing arbor is a public forum and photography is permitted except for special ceremonies, such as an eagle feather pick up, whistle blowing or family memorials.

In the old days, dncers would move around the drum. Today, to facilitate large crowds and numerous drum groups, the singers have been placed around the perimeter of the dancing arbor, close to the stands.

Several points of traditional etiquette have been violated as a result, according to contemporary professional drummers and knowledgeable Elders.

Many drum groups have expressed concerns about being crowded by throngs of enthusiastic followers, many with tape recorders, who also effectively block off the view of spectators in the stands, many of who travel hundreds of miles to see and hear the singers, drummers and dancers.

Elders in the past, have expressed misgivings about people electronically 'stealing songs,' because in the old days, songs were orally taught and learned. Traditional songs were once traded in an honorable way between tribes and nations for so many horses or hides.

Today, many honorable drum groups rely on the sale of tape recordings to keep them on the powwow trail, singing and drumming. It has become more difficult to sell tapes when anyone can bootleg live music at a powwow.

Powwow etiquette and tradition dictates that the Grass dancers be the first to enter the arbor, symbolically stomping down the grass to provide a flattened circle for the rest of the dancers to follow. They enter the arbor from the south entrance and go clockwise with the drum, following the wheeling movement of the sun, moon and stars.

Traditional powwow is much the same, except that real grass and fresh poplars often gives an open air arbor a more natural feeling.

Competitors and performers take part in the opening and closing ceremonies. Intertribals are open to everybody, with or without regalia.

Traditional powwow is unique in the sense that people come out, not only to honor their culture but also to have a lot of fun.

Non-Aboriginal spectators are often encouraged to borrow some gear and try the dancing themselves. Switch dancing, in which men and women swap regalia and copete for fun, is an ancient and honorable way to have a good laugh, as is the mysterious clown dancers who often dance backwards and provide a wonderful comic relief.

The powwow is perhaps the most important public celebration that we have. It's a time to renew our ties to the earth, the animal spirits and fellow humans, to show our best face to the world.