The term “pow wow” comes from the Algonquian native language group and most closely translates to “meeting.” Pow wows were originally a way for traders to gather and sell goods, and in doing so, they often employed Native American dancers. However, while today’s pow wows still play a role in local economies, they have become popular among tribes for other reasons.
Pow wows serve as a reminder of the beauty in our traditions and cultures. Dancing is a form of prayer and a way of life for many tribes. I was taught that dancing is the highest form of prayer. It’s also inspired by different sources, such as hunting and gathering, camping, tracking, respecting animals and their worth, and more. All these dances hold different meanings for those who dance and pow wows serve as a cultural celebration that brings levity to hard times and connects us with past and future generations through tradition.
Unfortunately, pow wows are currently a cause for concern as tribal communities continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and worry about the risk to Native American health. This year, we’ve had to ask ourselves a hard question: Are pow wows, sun dances and other traditional gatherings more important than the health of our communities?
Many tribes are canceling pow wows, cultural ceremonies and other events to protect the very lives of those who celebrate them. And as tribes continue to be impacted by the spread of COVID-19, the lack of celebration and continued risk for Elders is taking a heavy toll on traditional customs and culture.
The Navajo Nation, for example, has the highest per capita infection rate in the country (more than 7,800 as of June 20). With so few sources of cultural knowledge across the 574 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., any loss of Elders, spiritual leaders and practicing community members means a loss of culture for their tribes. The coronavirus certainly has impacted us all, but for these communities where fewer remember their oral history and traditions, every loss comes with a significant cost.
While Native communities are taking steps to social distance, it’s hard not to miss partaking in our pow wows, sun dances and inipi ceremonies. However, we must sacrifice these traditions to protect our loved ones and our ancestral ways for the greater good of our people.
I hope everyone is staying safe – and not complacent – as we become adjusted to the new normal. Too much is at risk and we must stay vigilant to protect ourselves and each other in these trying times.
[June 23, 2020]