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Native American Indian Culture

Many visitors to the USA are interested in our Native American population. They often ask about how they can visit an Indian Reservations, meet Native Americans and learn about their culture. Unfortunately, many foreign visitors to the USA share some common misconceptions about Native Americans. Let's see if we can clarify the situation a bit.

When the European colonists arrived on the American continent, there were nearly 12 million Native Americans living within the confines of the present United States. They were divided into more than one thousand different tribes or kinship groups. Many of those original inhabitants died from the European diseases introduced into their homelands by the colonists. The surviving natives were steadily pushed from one place to another as the invading colonists constantly appropriated more and more of the Indians' lands for farming, ranching and mineral development. Eventually, the US government allocated parcels of land, known as Indian Reservations, to each of the Indian tribes. Most of the lands ceded were unsuitable for cultivation and devoid of any valuable resources. Today, there are one or more Indian reservations in every state.

Visiting Indian Reservations

You can visit any of the Indian reservations, but there may be little for you to see. Most Indian families live in homes that are not very different from any other houses in the USA. On the wealthier reservations, the natives live in nice modern houses or on large ranches. On the poorer reservations, the natives live in small older houses or trailers. Very few natives live in the traditional dwellings of their ancestors. The Indian pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona are the rare exception where some of the natives still live in the ancient adobe communal buildings of their ancestors.

Corn Dance © Jack Ratsons - Santa Fe CVB
Native American Indians in Santa Fe, New Mexico perform the "Corn Dance," a ritual dance intended to bring rain.

Most Indian families enjoy their privacy as much as you do in your own home. They may not appreciate bunches of tourists coming to their homes on the reservation to stare at them and to photograph them. On some reservations, there are signs stating that all outside visitors must register at the tribal office or that no photography is permitted on the reservation. Some tribes have built special visitor centers, museums, stores or casinos on their reservations, and they invite tourists to come to visit these places.

The reservations are sovereign nations

The Indian reservations are actually sovereign nations within the United States of America. They govern themselves; maintain their own police force and their own system of justice. When you visit a reservation, you are under the laws of the tribe. Some Indian tribes have taken advantage of this independent political status by allowing gambling on their reservations while the states around them prohibit it. Indian casinos now attract many tourists from the surrounding no-gambling states. On some reservations, the tribes also sell cigarettes, alcohol or gasoline at reduced prices due to their exemption from state taxes.

The Indian reservation is the spiritual and cultural center for all members of the tribe including those living far from it. The native language, the cultural traditions and the religious ceremonies are typically preserved by the tribal members living on the reservation. Unfortunately, you will not get much chance to experience Indian culture by visiting the Indian casino or by purchasing cheap cigarettes in the reservation store. Most of the authentic religious ceremonies and cultural events are not open to the public.

Experiencing Native American culture

One way of experiencing authentic Native American culture is by visiting one of the Indian cultural centers or Indian museums. The pueblo cultural center in Albuquerque, New Mexicois an excellent example. It offers an Indian museum, a crafts market, food stalls, a book shop and interpretive programs that include Native American dances, musical performances and story telling. 

Native American Chief © USATourist.com
A Native American Indian dancer in ceremonial clothing performs at a powwow in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Another way of intimately experiencing native culture is by visiting an Indian village on one of their special feast days. I had the good fortune of visiting the San Felipe Pueblo north of Albuquerque on the feast day of San Felipe. At least two to three hundred natives including men, women and children all dressed in traditional dance attire wove their way around the central plaza slowly stomping to the sonorous beat of the drummers and the exotic melody of the choir. They continued for an hour; and after a brief interval, were replaced with another large group of dancers. This was not a performance for the benefit of the tourists. It was a strange mixture of Catholic Christianity mixed with an ancient native ceremony venerating the corn plant. The dance continued from sunrise to sunset while thousands of visitors mingled with costumed dancers to sample foods from the vendors or to purchase crafts and jewelry. 

Indian powwows

One of the easiest ways of experiencing authentic Native American culture is by attending a powwow. Indian powwows are Native American social gatherings that typically attract Indians from various tribes. They usually feature dance contests, drumming contests, communal dancing, storytelling and plenty of social interaction. Powwows are weekend events that are held at various locations across the USA throughout most months of the year. They are normally open to the public.

The largest powwow in North America is the "Gathering of Nations." It is held every April at the sports arena of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. This event attracts over two thousand Native American dancers, hundreds of drummers, tens of thousands of Indian spectators and several thousand non-Indian guests. In addition, it features a large Native American crafts market and many food stalls. There is a modest admission fee. I attended this spectacular event in 2005.

Entry of the Eagle Standard

A powwow always begins with the grand entry of the eagle feather standard. All spectators remove their hats and stand as a sign of respect. The standard is followed first by the tribal chiefs and the esteemed village elders, then by a procession of all of the dancers. At the Gathering of Nations, this entry procession lasted over thirty minutes until the entire arena was filled with over a thousand Indian dancers all adorned in their colorful and elaborate dance attire.

Shawl Dancer © USATourist.com
Native American Indian women participating in the Ladies Fancy Shawl Dance. The ladies wear their shawls over their shoulders, and dance by jumping and spinning with the music.

Drums were spaced around the arena floor with eight or ten musicians seated around each. Throughout the powwow, these drummer groups took turns performing for the various dances. Each group vied for recognition as the best.

There are many types of Indian dances with numerous tribe-specific variations of each. At the Gathering of Nations and at most other large powwows the contests feature only the most popular pan-tribal dances familiar to all participants. Men's dances, women's dances and children's dances are divided into age categories with prizes awarded in each classification.

Types of Indian dances

Women's dance contests usually include the jingle dance in which each participant wears a dress decorated with seven layers of metallic chimes. The contestants perform an animated dance that keeps their metallic baubles rhythmically jingling. The scarf dance features contestants wearing dresses and shawls decorated with elaborate beadwork and paintings while performing graceful soaring birdlike movements.

Men compete in highly animated and stylized adaptations of traditional war dances such as the grass dance and the fancy dance. Their dance attire is spectacularly elaborate. Outfits for the fancy dance include colorfully beaded garments elaborately decorated with feathers or furs and prominently featuring two large feather bustles on the back. Each outfit is highly individualized with tribal and personal elements.

In addition to the dance contests, a powwow typically includes one or more exhibition dances or communal dances in which everyone is invited to participate. The Kiowa gourd dance was performed at the Gathering of Nations. It is a ceremony honoring the warriors and the esteemed elders of the tribes.

Gourd Dance © USATourist.com
During a Gourd Dance, a drummer, surrounded by tribe elders, begins a slow rythmic beat while warriors slowly appear around the edges.

The Kiowa Gourd Dance

At the beginning of the gourd dance ceremony, a drum was placed in the center of the arena with a group of esteemed elders seated around it. The drummers began a slow rhythmic beat, and the warriors slowly appeared around the edges of the arena. Most of them wore pieces of their old military uniforms. There were World War II uniforms. Korean War field jackets, Vietnam medals and Desert Storm patches. In addition, they wore tribal regalia, feathers or animal skins and personal mementos. Everyone had a red and blue scarf draped over their shoulder and carried a gourd rattle. To the Kiowa, the red represents their battles against the Spaniards and the blue their battles against the American cavalry. As the dance continued, the warriors slowly moved inward toward the drum, and other esteemed tribal members joined the periphery. Eventually, women and children, with shawls and blankets thrown over their shoulders, joined the fringes of the dance and spectators were invited to join them. The dance continued for nearly an hour and ended with the entire arena filled with a community of dancers.

One thing is obvious at every powwow, they are truly community functions. The tribal elders are always held is high esteem as are the warriors. The children are cherished. Family, tribe and friendship are extolled. The ceremonies are treated with reverence but all is pervaded with a good dose of humor. Everyone is welcomed in a spirit of peace and friendship. If you want to sample a bit of Native American Culture, the powwow is the place to go. You can find the location and dates for powwows, by completing an Internet search for "powwows" There are many links to powwow lists but none of them are complete.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © USATourist.com
Photo Description: Native American Indians during a powwow in Santa Fe, New Mexico.