What is a Pow-Wow

NOTE: There’s a bit of debate going on in Indian Country about the true meaning of the word “pow wow.” Some feel it means a gathering to discuss issues and make decisions. Others say it was a time of fun and socializing. The following information, which was provided by members of both the Salish and Kootenai culture committees, uses the word “celebration” instead of pow wow.]

The first celebrations were times of enjoyment. The opening event was a memorial dance to honor those who had died during the previous year. Following this, the celebrations were opened for entertainment and fun. A variety of dances will be seen at the Arlee pow wow, including:

The canvas dance: Usually the next dance done after the memorial if there was going to be a raiding party. The men would start early in the night and sing from camp to camp, usually going until the next morning. Sometime during this time, the raiding party would leave. Nowadays, the canvas dance has become only a form of entertainment.

The lost-article dance: A song was sung to gather the warriors, who were to tell of their great deeds. In the dance, items were left on the ground. The dance ended when the warrior picked up the lost item. The warrior told how he had taken certain items during battles. There were many stories told. When the stories were finished, a certain song was sung to signify that the lost article dance had ended and the warriors would be escorted out of the dance circle.

The round dance (sometimes called a circle dance): A social and happy dance because it is meant to get everyone to participate.

The gift dance: When one person wished to give a gift to another, he merely escorted the person inside the circle of dancers and began round dancing around the drum. When the song ended, the gift was presented. Generally, announcements were made as to who gave the gift and to whom.

The prairie chicken: Many years ago, a Kootenai man resting in a field woke up and heard singing near him. Very carefully, he raised up and saw the prairie chicken singing and dancing. The man returned to his people and showed them how this dance was done. Consequently, the dancers strut around and show off like a prairie chicken.

The fancy dance: This dance was introduced among the Flatheads through visits with other tribes. This very colorful and exciting dance is used in the finals of championship dancing. This attracts many of the younger dancers throughout the country, who demonstrate their various steps and fancy movements.

The snake dance: Done to begin a war dance. It was led by a chosen man who gathered the dancers at a designated spot, generally at the celebration chief’s camp. The dancers danced single-file toward the dance area with the leader weaving and doubling back in the fashion of a snake. The drummers and singers followed the group, singing the snake dance song. The snake dance is done only on the 4th of July in Arlee.

War dancing: Takes place at the celebrations whenever no other activity was taking place. Each man had his own style of dancing. A great number of songs are sung for each war dance. There are fast and slow war dances. The older type of war dance, as said by the elders, was done similar to the crow hop.

The flag song was treated with respect. It is as important as the national anthem is to the non-Indians. It is sung to open each dance session. The Indian flags were made of eagle feathers attached to a long staff or lance, which were carried by great warriors. When a man carried the Indian flag, he was well-respected because he had earned each of the eagle feathers.

A note to visitors: Some dances are honor dances. It is appropriate to stand and remove one’s hat during these dances.

(Sources: Flathead Culture Committee, Box 418, St. Ignatius MT 59865, 406/745-4572;
and the Kootenai Culture Committee, Box 1452, Elmo MT 59915, 406/849-5541.)

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