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UTTC Powwow

9/1/2004:

Next week, United Tribes Technical College presents its 35th International Powwow from the 9th through the 12th. UTTC is an intertribal, post-secondary vocational/technical school. It started in 1969 serving the education and training needs of American Indian students and their families. The school is synonymous with the annual powwow, one of the largest dance and singing competitions in the country.

The word powwow is from Eastern tribal nations and means a gathering for the purpose of discussing and resolving an issue. The Lakota word for ‘dance’ is ‘wacipi’ (wahCHEEpee).

Competition for prize money is the focal point of most modern powwows. A few are considered “traditional” powwows because they emphasize social dances and community ceremonies. All powwows today are entertaining public gatherings for friends, relatives and visitors.

But it wasn’t always so.

Government fear and misunderstanding led to restrictions on dancing as far back as the late 1880s during the Ghost Dance movement, which later climaxed at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

In 1923, powwows were all but banned by Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke, who wrote, “that something must be done to stop the neglect of stock, crops, gardens, and home…caused by these dances or celebrations…that take the time of the Indians for many days.”

Burke’s paternalistic concern also focused on the custom of sharing. “No good comes from your ‘give-away’ customs at dances and it should be stopped,” he wrote. “You do yourself and your families great injustice when you give away money or other property, perhaps clothing, a robe, a horse or a team and wagon, and then after an absence of several days go home and find everything going to waste.”

The ban limited Indian dances to one celebration per district per summer, and nobody under age 50 could attend. For Native Americans, being deprived of public celebrations was another threat to their culture, which they handled by holding their gatherings in private. Ironically, Buffalo Bill’s “Wild West Show” was at that time creating crowds of whites who wanted to see Native dances, and many young dancers got jobs with spin-off shows. Many young Indian boys in boarding schools were reported as wanting to run away and join these shows.

Restrictions on powwows were finally lifted in 1934 during the “Self Determination Era” of government programs.

It wasn’t until the start of the great American Indian cultural renaissance in the late 1960s and early 70s that powwows became very popular, with people traveling the “powwow trail” during the summer throughout Indian Country. That’s the period when the United Tribes International Powwow started.

Carol Two Eagle describes the resourcefulness of people who kept the traditions alive at small powwows on the reservation. “When I was little, my unci (UNHchee w/nasalized N) – or grandmother – and I sometimes snuck off to powwows. People then danced at night but not so late. Vehicles were parked in a big circle, but one that started reliably was kept out. The others turned on their headlights, and people danced until all the lights went out. Then the easy starter was fired up and went to all the other vehicles and jumped them so everyone could go home.”