The business of fancy dancing

Dancers take center stage at Mother's Day Pow Wow

Adriana Wahwasuck

For 44 years, Native Americans from all over the Northwest have gathered to celebrate on the University of Oregon campus in early May. The Mother’s Day Pow Wow and Salmon Bake returns to McArthur Court this year for three days of dancing, drumming and strengthening social connections.

“Many people think that pow wows are ceremonial,” said UO graduate student Adriana Wahwasuck. “But they’re not. They’re just social gatherings.” 

Wahwasuck is a student in the UO College of Education's Sapsikwal'a Program for Indigenous Teachers and a member of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Tribe. She has been dancing at pow wows “since I could walk,” she said.

Over the years, she has danced in hundreds of dances at pow wows all over the country.  At the UO Mother’s Day Pow Wow, Wahwasuck will dance along with her two daughters as well as her mother, who is visiting from Kansas. Wahwasuck and her youngest daughters are “jingle dancers.”  Her mother dances traditional dance and her oldest daughter is a fancy dancer.  Each category of dancing has different regalia.

A traditional jingle dress is bedecked with 365 cones made from metal Copenhagen lids, Wahwasuck explained. According to her mother, the lids of smokeless tobacco tins are used symbolically on the dresses because tobacco has important tribal significance.

During the pow wow, there will be many opportunities for dancing. During intertribal dances, Wahwasuck said, “a drum will sing a song and anybody can dance.” But there will also be exhibition dances and competitions. Generally there are three categories of dances for men: fancy dancers, traditional dancers and grass dancers.  The women also participate in fancy dancing and jingle dances, and dance in traditional dances. Between 30 and 40 dancers will be in the arena during each exhibition.

Everybody is welcome at a pow wow, and everybody is encouraged to dance. There is, however, certain pow wow etiquette.  Because the traditional regalia is of deep spiritual significance, etiquette prohibits touching anybody’s feathers or regalia. It is also considered rude to photograph a dancer without his or her permission.

But beyond those simple rules, the pow wow is all about community, and singing and dancing with family and friends.

Rita Radostitz