Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
A Gathering at the Drum
Each summer around Canada Day, if you were to visit Cold Lake-North, Alberta and head for the campgrounds at English Bay, the chances are good that you will hear a steady 'thump-thump-thump' sounding like a heartbeat echoing across the waters of Cold Lake. (The proper name for the lake in the Denesuline language is Kinusoo, 'Lake of the Big Fish.') That sound is the powwow drum, and it will beat far into the night. Powwows are now held all over North America, with the number of attendees and dancers growing every year. A powwow circuit which many drum groups and dancers tour for the summer months now encompasses most of North America, from the plains to the west and east coasts. Larger gatherings include participants from many Nations, and at such powwows former traditional enemies have danced together and renewed their pledges of peace. Yet like most such great events and ceremonies, the origins of the powwow are very humble.
The origins of the powwow go back to what anthropologists named 'societies' in their writings about various Indigenous Nations in North America. In some ways they are a bit like what is usually understood to be a medieval guild. Societies are organized groups of people who share a specific skill. It is possible to become a member of a society by paying a fee or providing several pieces of qualifying work. The society members work and socialize together, and may work together to provide ceremonies or benefits to their communities apart from their usual work. This is all similar to medieval guilds in a loose way, but that's where the similarity ends. Some societies are not spoken of to outsiders. Each society has its own sacred songs and regalia, and members hold regular meetings at which they feast, dance, and share teachings. In the days before Europeans arived, when members of a society experienced a great success, they would perform a thanksgiving dance in full regalia for the entire community to watch. These events developed into the powwow.
Powwows became more intertribal in nature in the 19th and 20th centuries as First Nations began to develop the always fluid-natured events into a means of revitalizing their cultures and bringing their people together. Both the Canadian and United States federal governments promptly tried to ban them, but if anything these probably helped strengthen the determination to organize and participate in them. Plus, both governments contradicted themselves by permitting what would now be called 'powwow dancing' as part of socaled 'wild wst shows.'
In the 1980s considerable friction developed when women began to challenge their exclusion from participation at the drums at powwows. Many men attempted to claim that women could not be allowed to play the drums because it belonged only to them and women were ritually impure or else spiritually too powerful to touch the drum most of the time. Drumming is no more the sole province of men than the grass dance is (although the grass dance was made into a male-only dance for a time), but it is true that since the drum is sacred and most drum groups make their own, that it is right for them to decide who plays it. Accordingly, women have been making their own drums and developing their own drum groups, as well as joining pre-existing men's groups when the opportunity arises.
Arguments over the meaning of the term 'powwow' or the word or words it may once have come from have continued among anthropologists and European linguists. The arguments must be fun, because there is no sign of them ending, even though the term has been traced to both Anishinabeg and Mi'kmaqi dialects along the eastern seaboard. A loose translation of it is 'dreaming together' which can even be understood as 'being in a sacred state together.'