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Native American Dance Regalia: The Art of Powwow

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Native American Dance Regalia: The Art of Powwow

Male Northern Traditional Dancers at 2002 Smithsonian Powwow

R.A. Whiteside, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

The making of dance regalia is for Native American people a tradition. It is a distinctly indigenous activity that is illustrative of the reality that for indigenous people there is no separation between art and everyday life, between culture and creativity, or the sacred from secular. All styles of regalia are remarkably elaborate, and while the degree of beauty of an outfit doesn't necessarily equate to dancing talent, it does say something about a person's commitment to dancing. They all have stories as historical categories and as individual creations. The making of powwow dance outfits is an art form all its own.

Powwow History

Powwows are intertribal social gatherings that began roughly in the 1880's. This was at a time Indians were experiencing great upheavals in their communities, as those were the years of the assimilation era when tribes were being forced onto reservations, into more sedentary lifestyles, and families were being broken up due to the boarding school policy. By the 1960's the federal government's relocation policy led to large populations of Native Americans in urban centers and powwows became an important way for Indians to stay connected to their tribal cultures and identities.

Native American Beliefs

For Native people, everything is imbued with spiritual meaning even in the context of the modern world, and especially when it comes to the expression of culture and identity. For dancers, not only is the act of dancing that expression, but the wearing of dance regalia is the visible manifestation of one's heritage. A dancer's regalia is one of the most powerful symbols of her Native identity and in that regard it can be considered sacred. This is one reason why it is incorrect to refer to dance regalia as a "costume." Many of the elements that make up a dance outfit are items often associated with ceremonial function such as eagle feathers and parts, animal hides, items that have been handed down through generations, as well as designs that may have been handed down or were given in dreams and visions.

How Outfits are Acquired

In today's world not everybody in Native societies possesses the skills required to construct dance regalia, and in fact most simply do not. Often dance outfits or elements of outfits are passed down; grandma's moccasins, dad's dance fan or bustle, or mom's buckskin and beadwork. More often outfits are made by family members, purchased in the marketplace, or custom made by professional artists. Far less commonly are outfits actually made by the dancer her or himself. No matter which way a dancer acquires their dance regalia, it typically takes many years to build a wardrobe of dance outfits (most dancers own more than one outfit), and is very expensive.

Skills

It takes a variety of skills to put together a dance outfit. First, it takes the knowledge of different dance styles which will guide the vision for an outfit's design. An eye for design is imperative so that all elements of the outfit will be consistent. Sewing is one necessary skill, but not just the ability to sew fabric. The ability to sew leather is also necessary which means a person must have leathersmithing skills as well. They must also have certain crafting abilities, like knowledge about how to make feather fans, moccasins and beadwork. This is such a wide variety of skills and because very few people possess all of them, most dance outfits come from several different sources.

Dance Styles

There are a number of different dance techniques that are divided into men's and women's in the categories of northern and southern styles. Men and women both have a style of "fancy" dancing (which is considered a northern style), and both have styles of "traditional" dance within the northern and southern genre. Other styles include grass dancing, the chicken dance, southern straight, jingle dress and gourd dancing.
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