Chicago's Fifty Years of Powwows

<Adapted from the book of the same name>


Introduction: What is a Powwow?

The powwow is at once a celebration and extension of Indian traditions through the arts (visual and performance) and a critical vehicle for transmitting those traditions to our younger generation. Although traditional aspects of Native American culture have evolved and are still practiced in urban centers, it is conveyed that respective Indian Nations who reside in Chicago culturally exchange among themselves through powwow culture. Powwows are places and time to rekindle old friendships, reaffirm traditional values, share, and introduce the vivid and vital spectacle of contemporary Indian culture to the larger Chicago community.

The Annual American Indian Center of Chicago Powwow, held each November, is the largest form of American Indian artistic and cultural education activity, providing a platform for self representation through traditional and contemporary Native art forms. It has become an indispensable and defining cultural endeavor in Indian Chicago.

Historically, powwows evolved from ceremonials of the Grass Dance Societies that formed during the early 1800s. Over a period of time, Indian relations with the government translated toy ceasing a myriad of tribal customs and religious practices. However, the Grass Dance was one of the few celebrations allowed into this new era. As other communities and tribes were invited to these celebrations, rights of ownership of sacred items of the Grass Dance were transferred from one tribe to another. Intertribalism commenced with the sharing of these songs and dances.

In the 1920s, some powwows became "intertribal" meaning that they were open for all tribes to attend, and these events happened sporadically. World War II brought a revival to the powwow world, and since then powwows have been growing, changing, and adapting to modern ways, while retaining their cultural roots. Brighter colors, modern conveniences to short cut regalia making, more athletic and trained motions, and even a new style of dance his emerged with the passage of time.

There are several different kinds of powwows (e.g. memorials, birthdays, fundraisers, etc.), however, the two most common are known as traditional and competition powwows. Traditional powwows are executed for purposes of honor in traditions; retaining and celebrating Native values.

Traditional powwows are informal, and include ceremonies such as giveaways (gifts for those who have helped the inspired gift giver) or "first" dances (support based ceremony, inviting and celebrating the first dance of an individual into the dance circle). On the other hand, while traditional values are not absent, a competition powwow is held in a festival environment. The competition powwow provides an opportunity for both Native and non- Native persons to learn about Native American culture, including but not limited to the wide spectrum of traditional Indian art and music.

Spectators enjoy contemporary Native American cuisine (diverse foods from respective Tribal Nations), purchase various art items and thematic Native products, and watch dancers and singers compete for the right to be named champion. Significant prize money is involved with competition powwows. It is important to note that most of the consecrated ceremonies are no longer part of the powwow (e.g. naming ceremonies are now conducted in the privacy of the family), but honoring ceremonies remain today.

In Chicago, powwow is produced for artistic expression, cultural exchange, celebration and educational endeavors. Additionally, powwow reinforces the presence of Native Americans and their contributions to the cultural fabric of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.


The photographs in this online essay document a half century of the powwow experience.

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The book Chicago's Fifty Years of Powwow has many more photos and offers insights that are not presented in this Online Essay. To obtain a copy of your own, follow this offsite link to the webpage for the Chicago American Indian Center.



   Department of Anthropology
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