Great Spirit

Bound by tradition, Indian nations celebrate heritage during Payson's first pow wow


Rim country residents and visitors experienced the color and excitement of a grand Native American tradition at the first Tonto Apache Tribal Pow Wow in the fall of 2000 at the Payson Event Center.

Many tribes around the country now hold pow wows, a contemporary link to the past that features singing, dancing, drumming, colorful regalia and Native American food, arts and crafts. While outsiders often view the celebrations as entertainment, pow wows are a spiritual time for Native Americans to reflect on traditions and honor the past.

The term "pow wow" is an adaptation of the Algonquin word "Pau Wau." The dances, which have become featured events, were once called Grass Dances and were held by members of elite warrior societies.

As Native Americans began to live on reservations, non-survival activities such as dancing became more important, gradually evolving into contest dancing where dancers competed for cash prizes. At today's pow wows, contest categories are based on dance styles and age groups, and dancers are judged on their regalia as well as their dancing abilities.

The dance arena, called an arbor, is blessed before the pow wow begins and is considered sacred ground for the duration of the celebration. Each dance session begins with a procession of dancers known as the grand entry, and a master of ceremonies keeps the pow wow running smoothly while explaining to spectators what is taking place.

The Tonto Apache pow wow, which is scheduled to become an annual event, features multiple tribes with dancers from around the country competing for thousands of dollars in prize money.

Dances included within the categories are:

Grass dance: dancers wear yokes, breech cloths and either a bandanna or a porcupine headdress.

Northern traditional: represents a warrior scouting before a battle. Dancers wear a headpiece of eagle feathers, a bone hair pipe choker and breastplate, and carry a dance staff and fan made from the wing of an eagle.

Southern straight: dancers are elaborately attired in otter skin trailers decorated with mirrors and beadwork or ribbon work, bone hair pipes, bead bandoliers, silver chokers, and beaded belts.

Jingle dress: a cotton or taffeta dress with "jingles" made of snuff can lids attached. They make a distinctive sound that represents waves or thunder to scare away evil spirits.

Fancy shawl: most important is the shawl, worn over the shoulders and held out as the dancer steps and twirls. The legend behind the dance is of a butterfly that lost its mate in battle and went into a cocoon until it could begin life anew.

For information about this year's pow wow, call Hubert Nanty at (520) 474-7021 or Lee Williams at (480) 965-5224.

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