I have only one heart and one tongue—Howlish Wampo, June 1877
The pow-wow world of modern Native American singing and dance competition is said to be ‘pan-Indian.’ Pow-wow is like a broad cross-cultural theater. Specialized powwow dances and songs originated in specific tribes but became generalized in practice among many tribes. For example, it’s said the jingle dance originated in the eastern woodlands as a women’s medicine dance for healing. Grass dance came from the plains tribes for the preparation of the ceremonial grounds. Both have become popular forms of dance on the pow-wow scene. Plains Indian culture, styles, songs, and regalia seem to have been co-opted as the most accessible social intercourse among many Tribes. All the way from the coast to the southwest, plains style pow wows are held.
Among Plateau tribes, the paaxam or war dance was to honor the battle participants and formally witness their stories. Females didn’t join in war dances unless they were veterans. On the pow-wow grounds, such taboos are lifted, and it’s encouraged for everybody to join in. The powwow is a time for celebration when people are released from everyday restrictions. In the old days, powwow season followed the harvest time. It was a reward for a season of hard work to be able to go out among the people.
Some things stay the same, such as the ceremonial whip man and whip woman who regulate the dancers. Dancers generally hold eagle feathers up, whereas dancers from elsewhere may mimic sweeping the floor with their eagle feather fans. Plateau Indians use the golden eagle feathers. There used to be rock stands out and about where men would hide and pluck out feathers when eagles landed for a scavenger snack.
Dancers used to get ‘initiated’ on the dance floor. It was not automatic that someone could just start publically dancing but they would make a formal entry with the sponsorship of their family. Then when mourning families had sat out for a year, they would hold a rejoining and pay for the right to rejoin the community and get back on the dance floor.
Not only is there pan-Indianism in the powwow world, but there has also been a regional blending of cultures even among inland Plateau tribes. Singers used to sing in more natural voices, but it became popular on the pow-wow circuit for high voices. Singers must strain their voices hitting unnatural ranges unless they know how to take care of their voices. More often than not, they’re probably soothing their throats with cigarettes. The singing is the main attraction. The very best singers create that watery liquid quality, an unearthly sound. It’s polyrhythmic, several voices singing the same song in their own way.