When Non Native Participation in Powwows Goes Terribly Wrong

by Guest Contributor Adrienne K., originally published at Native Appropriations

Powwow girls

Let’s set the scene: Friday afternoon, Stanford powwow–one of the largest powwow’s on the West Coast. Three Native powwow committee members and a friend are checking in on the vendor booths, making sure things are ready to go, and they come across the group pictured above. 6 non-Native girls, decked out in warpaint, feathers, fringe, and moccassins–playing Indian at its worst. I’ll let my friend Leon tell the whole story:

While we were walking around Powwow on Friday, checkin out the vendors, we saw this pack of little white girls come running in from the street. Now, needless to say, we were shocked at the sight. We pretty much all just stopped in our tracks, and were speechless for a minute, as we looked on in sheer disbelief. After going through a few (angry) options in our heads about what to do, we figured we should have a little fun with it first (especially since there was this crew of little like six year old Native girls who were already making fun of them)…anyways, me and Lisa devised a plan to get this picture of them for you and your blog. So Lisa approached the girls and said “Excuse me girls…” (silence fell upon the land)…”could we get a picture of you for our newsletter?” “Of course!!!” the girls replied with excitement…

So girls, here’s your “newsletter” debut.
After Leon and crew took the picture, the powwow security team talked to them and brought them over to the director of the Stanford Native Center for some education on the issue, so (hopefully) they at least walked away from the experience with a new understanding of their actions. If they didn’t, here, again, is my anti-headdress manifesto.

I was telling my mom about the incident, and she said, “Honey, you can’t be too hard on them. Clearly they just didn’t know any better.” The thing is, they should have known better.

These girls are students at Palo Alto High School. Definitely one of the best high schools in the area, if not the state. It is a high school that turns out tops students who go on to top colleges, and enrolls  children of professors, stanford employees, and other well educated silicon valley execs. To top it off, the school is literally across the street from Stanford. Across the street from a school that hosts the largest student run powwow in the nation for 39 years running, that is home to nearly 300 Native students, that has one of the strongest college Native communities in California.

I would like to think that the combination of those factors would equate some level of understanding, that a high school of their caliber would incorporate some type of curriculum on Native history, or at least a basic level of cultural sensitivity. Clearly, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If these girls survived a talking-to by Winona (the director of the Native Center), they know what they did was wrong, and why. I feel posting their picture and story is enough of a public shaming. But as I struggle to find an analogy to another community event to analyze this incident, I’m still left scratching my head.

Why did these girls think it was ok to dress up like ridiculous “Indians” to come to a Native community event? Would these girls have dressed in blackface to go to a African American community gathering? Wear a sombrero, poncho, and drawn on mustache to a Ballet Folklorico concert? No.

But powwows, at least in areas that are not majority-Native, tend to invite non-Native spectators, encourage their participation in things like intertribal dances, and allow time and space for education about Native history and powwow traditions. I think that’s a great thing. Powwows show the vibrancy and currency of our cultures and evolving traditions; they show we are still here, that traditions are strong, that our communities exist and will continue to exist. They expose thousands of people to Native cultures that they may not ever encounter otherwise. They allow for Native artists and craftspeople to make a living selling their jewelry and art.

However, this openness and encouragement of non-Native participation creates a fine line–we want you to come, to learn, to watch, to engage; but that doesn’t mean it’s ok to mock our cultures in your attempts at participation.

I felt like that line was crossed a couple of weeks ago at the Harvard powwow, where our MC (a well respected MC throughout Indian country, great man, very focused on the educational aspects of powwow) called for a “Spectator Special”.  He invited the non-Indian spectators out to for a dance competition at the end of the afternoon, to real contest songs.

There were separate songs for men and women, and multiple rounds–semi-finals, finals, ect. The winners were chosen by the audience, and given a cash prize (like $5). As I stood on the sidelines and watched, I couldn’t help but feel extremely uncomfortable. It was like we had just given these men and women permission to mock us.

They hopped and ran around–one man even took off his socks to spin around like the fancy dancers. The thing was, it wasn’t like they were clowning, or smiling, or being silly. They were dead serious. They had looks of concentration, were sweating, breathing hard. I think I would have felt better if it was a joke–a chance for the Native dancers to take a break and poke fun at the spectators, almost like the switch dance where the men dance like women and women like men. But instead, these spectators reverted to the worst of stereotypes, jumping around like “war dances” around the fire from a spaghetti western.

I want to share the video I took on my cell phone, but beware, the quality is, well, what you would expect from a cell phone. And the sound was so bad I had to plop a Northern Cree contest song behind it so you could still get the effect. In sum, don’t judge the filmmaker, judge the content of the film.

I’m hoping you can see the young girls running around the powwow circle, and the intensity of the mom in the tank top and baseball cap. She went on to “win”.

I don’t know if I’m being oversensitive on the spectator special, but it really made me feel weird, like it somehow belittled the talent and tradition of the Native dancers. Those dancers have been dancing since they were little, know the traditions and stories behind their style of dance, and have invested time and money in their regalia. To almost imply that spectators are just as good after a few hours of watching the dancing just seems wrong.

So, in sum, powwows are an amazing opportunity for education of the non-Native community on Native traditions and cultures, and may serve as one of the only chances that these spectators have to interact with Native peoples in a modern and culturally relevant setting. However, there’s a difference between learning and appropriating. Clearly some of these spectators need to learn the difference.

Earlier: But Why Can’t I Wear a Hipster Headdress?