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Pow Wow Season: Culture Sharing in Virginia

Updated: May 22

Tanya Stewart (Chickahominy) honors her Indigenous traditions

It’s pow wow season and this is an excellent opportunity to build good relations with tribes all over the nation and in Virginia. Pow wows are open door opportunities to learn more about cultural traditions and values of Tribal Nations and start building a relationship with tribal leadership, staff, and citizens on their ancestral lands. If you’ve never been to a pow wow before, we invite you to mark your calendar to join the Tribal Nations in Virginia and learn more about how to respectfully attend and participate in pow wows.

We sat down with Tanya Stewart, a citizen of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe and cultural director for the Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division to learn more about supporting respectful exchange.

The Chickahominy Indian Tribe has hosted the longest running traditional pow wow on the East Coast and is set to hold its 72nd annual pow wow this Fall. Traditional pow wows mean there are no competitions. Tanya has been attending pow wows all her life and graciously shared her expertise and time with us.

What is a pow wow?

A pow wow is a celebration of Indigenous culture and resilience and a place for Indigenous Peoples to practice their language, culture, and spiritual ceremonies through song, dance, and art forms which have been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Pow wows are hosted on sites selected by each Tribal Nation that may be on their tribal lands, or, in some cases, hosted in other areas that are large enough to accommodate crowds and parking for multi-day celebrations of culture, history, and lifeways important to Indigenous Peoples.

The dance arena is blessed on the day of the pow wow and this protected circle is where traditional dances are performed by dancers in tribal regalia with accompanying traditional drumming and songs. Alcohol, drugs, weapons and animals (outside of service dogs) are not allowed at pow wows.

The Drum

Drums are the literal heartbeat of both Tribal Nations and the pow wow. The drum is sacred and central to the pow wow. The drum begins and ends the pow wow and marks formal entry and exit of tribal dancers into the circle. Visitors are not permitted to enter the drum area or touch the drums and drummers will guard the drum with their lives. 

“The drum is like our grandfather–we have a deep respect for it and operate around the drum as we would our grandfathers. Just like we wouldn’t cuss, drink, smoke or do drugs around our grandfathers, we don’t do so around the drum.”

The Dance Arena

Within a cordoned circle is the space of the dance arena. Dancers will enter the circle as guided by the Arena Director. All dancers travel in clockwise fashion when invited into the circle by the Master of Ceremonies to participate in a variety of dances that they learn from family, at tribal cultural centers, or, in Tanya’s case, at tribal school. Visitors should not enter the circle unless invited, enter the circle shoeless, or reverse direction.

“We never go backwards in the circle. That’s a native thing–we only move forward.”

The Ceremony

A Master of Ceremony invited by the tribe will orchestrate the announcement of all songs, introducing drummers, providing instructions, and reminding visitors when they are permitted to enter the dance arena. The Grand Entry begins the pow wow and most pow wows on the east coast follow a standard format: Grand Entry, Presentation of the Colors, Flag Songs, Veteran Songs,  Welcome Songs, Special or Honor Songs, and Closing Songs. If the Master of Ceremonies asks you to stand for certain songs or prayers and remove your hats, please do so! 

The Dances

Traditional pow wows tend to have standard special dances such as Men and Women’s Traditional Dances, Men and Women’s Fancy Dances, Eastern War Dances, and Jingle Dances. Dances can also be passed down within tribes and are significant to tribal identity. During the Veterans Song, all visitors are invited to enter the dance arena and pay homage as a sign of respect. If an elder invites you to dance, take the opportunity to enter the dance arena and share in the cultural exchange. Refusal to do so is a sign of deep disrespect.

“We [the Chickahominy Indian Tribe] have a Green Corn Dance and a Rabbit Dance, the Rappahannock have a Canoe Dance. Dances say a lot about our history and where our people came from.”

The Regalia

Regalia is deeply significant to tradition and culture. It is offensive to call regalia costumes or to touch them–especially the feathers which are sacred. In some tribes, when an eagle feather falls to the ground off the regalia of a dancer in the dance arena, all dancing must stop for the eagle feather to be gathered and carried out of the dance arena. In fact, it is illegal for people who aren’t native, members of a federally recognized tribe or employees of the US Fish and Wildlife Service to even possess an eagle feather. Dancers are often happy to take a picture with you, and please do not take photographs of native people without their consent.

“Pow wows are opportunities to honor our heritage and traditions and be who we are. We don’t wear costumes, because we are not dressing up as someone, we wear regalia so we can be ourselves.”

What to Bring

Donations are very welcome and can be provided to offset the costs associated with hosting the pow wows. Drink and food can be purchased to support tribal fundraising. And vendors typically encircle the arena and sell traditional crafts, jewelry and artwork.

“Bring a chair or a blanket, be ready to eat some good food, and prepare to have a good time.”

2024 Pow-wow Schedule:

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