Loud drumming and spirited vocalizations, at once jarring and beautiful, filled my ears as Native American pow wow dancers spun and swayed within the grassy dance circle. In a long procession that marked the evening’s Grand Entry, they followed military veterans bearing eagle feather staffs, and the U.S. and Canadian flags. In the late-afternoon sunlight, the dancers were a kaleidoscope of pastel and neon colors, floral and geometric shapes, sparkling sequins and mirrors, and shaking feathers.
Women with tight braids and feathers in their hair wore exquisitely beaded jewelry and moccasins. Some had wide shawls with streaming fringes and others wore dresses laden with bells that jingled as they stepped to the drumbeat. The men, depending on their dancing style, had face paint, red porcupine hair, bone breastplates, cross pendants, angora anklets, and eagle feather bustles that wobbled wildly when they spun.
A modern pow wow is exciting to watch. There’s definitely something special about experiencing a culture that has been in America for millennia. For the second year in a row, my wife and I visited the annual pow wow held in Busse Woods Forest Preserve in Elk Grove Village, IL. This public event is hosted by the American Indian Center of Chicago, a community outreach organization for urban Indians, and features inter-tribal competition dancing.
When we arrived, we zipped over to the food vendors where you can buy burgers and brats, and more importantly, Indian tacos on delicious fry bread. Then we browsed through craft tents that sold stuff like rabbit paws, dream catchers, incense and “Homeland Security” bumper stickers. Finally we sat down on a hay bale next to the dance circle.
There are several different dance styles, including the graceful-moving women’s dances (fancy shawl, jingle dress, and traditional) and the more athletic men’s dances (fancy, traditional and grass dance). One of my favorite dances was a hoop dance that I saw at last year’s event. A young woman, dancing to drums, would every so often kick up a hoop from the grass. She’d link this hoop to others that she had looped around her arms and legs into different configurations, all the while bouncing and spinning to the rhythmic drumming. Eventually she had seven hoops intertwined along and beyond her arms, as if they were wings. She then raised her arms over her head and made the seven hoops into one large circle. It was hypnotizing to watch.
Another dance that stood out was one that anyone could join. At the end of that dance, the announcer told everyone to freeze right where they were. Someone then came out and gave small gifts to randomly selected people. I learned later that gift-giving is an important part of pow wows.
In between dances the master of ceremonies regaled the audience with amusing anecdotes and wisecracks. He gave a tongue-in-cheek retelling of how it was for him to play lacrosse when he was a boy, saying “back then we didn’t have any of those new plastic sticks, we had wooden ones. And we liked it!”
Pow wows are important to the Native American community because it brings people together from many tribal nations to have fun and to keep the old traditions alive. This is especially important after centuries of upheaval from war, relocations and forced assimilation. Fortunately, there were many children and young people in the dance circle, fully appreciating their heritage. I’m glad that the public is invited, so that people like myself can enjoy a vivid part of their uniquely American heritage, too.
American Indian Center Powwow
Ned Brown Forest Preserve / Busse Woods
Elk Grove Village, IL
one weekend in mid-September
admission is $15 for adults; $10 for kids aged 12 or under, senior citizens & military with ID; free for kids aged 5 and under
free parking is offsite with free shuttles between parking lot and pow wow grounds