On the surface, a powwow is one big party. Since 1879, American Indian groups have held these get-togethers to celebrate their tribal heritage and engage in ceremonial activities. Many of these events revolve around singing and dancing, but participants weave, play games and cook, too. In any given summer, there are literally dozens of powwows across the US. These are some of the best.
Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow; Fairbanks, Alaska
With scores of aboriginal people in the northwest corner of North America, it makes sense that Alaska natives, American Indians and First Nations groups band together to celebrate their cultures as one. Every July, these groups honor their collective history with the Midnight Sun Intertribal Powwow.
This powwow, like most, begins with what's known as a Grand Entry, a ceremonial song and dance that involves drum-beating, chanting and rhythmic shaking. On the second day, after more drumming and dancing, participants engage in a traditional Gwich'in Athabascan (an indigenous nation) tug-of-war game known as nilee zhruk, in which participants tug at a cone-shaped object until someone lets go.
Most of this action takes place on the field behind the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. The commotion is flanked by booths selling everything from hand-woven textiles to homemade food. After 4 days, the festivities end with the ceremonial release of a bald eagle, and a climactic ritual song and dance.
Stick around and venture into Fairbanks for burgers and beer at the historic Pump House Restaurant & Saloon, then take a ride on Chena River aboard the paddle-wheeled Riverboat Discovery. Cap your visit with a day trip to the natural (and warm) soaking pools of Chena Hot Springs Resort, located about an hour northeast.
United Tribes International Powwow; Bismarck, North Dakota
Featuring nearly 1,500 dancers and drummers, the United Tribes International Powwowturns the capital city of Bismarck, N.D., into a cultural Mecca for one long weekend every summer. Sponsored byUnited Tribes Technical College, the event includes groups such as the Chippewa, Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa, to name a few.
Festivities begin with a drum roll call, a ceremonial banging of ritual drums, and a series of spiritual dances that send feather headdresses flying. Later, participants take over the Lone Star Arena with a variety of contests, including a classic car show, a softball tournament and a Miss Indian Nations pageant.
The culinary highpoint comes on Sunday afternoon, when, after a legendary rummage sale, sponsors kick off a free buffalo and beef feed that lasts most of the day. During this event, a seemingly endless sea of people line up for all-you-can-eat helpings of char-broiled buffalo meat, a local delicacy. The party ends with a seventh and final dance.
Following the powwow, the modest but informative North Dakota Heritage Center provides a variety of exhibits about state history from the 1400s until today.
Schemitzun; Ledyard, Connecticut
The Mashantucket Pequot tribe in Connecticut has achieved worldwide attention for Foxwoods, one of the largest casino floors in the world. But when they're not manning a multibillion-dollar gaming juggernaut, tribal members participate in Schemitzun, also known as the Feast of Green Corn and Dance.
The festival, which takes place in August under a big tent near Ledyard, CT, includes a lively singing contest and an exciting dancing contest with traditional steps. Nearby, there's a re-created Pequot village where visitors can explore traditional wigwams and a bustling Indian marketplace, an arts-and-crafts fair featuring home cooking (try the fry bread), live weaving demonstrations and craft work from more than 100 talented artists.
One of the event's biggest draws is the Buck-a-Rama Michael T. Goodwin Memorial Rodeo, an action-packed event in which dozens of American Indian cowboys ride bulls for a share of a prize payout.
Visitors who tire of the festivities always can walk down the road to try their luck on some slot machines at Foxwoods. Also down I-95 is the informative Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT, a maritime museum with historic tall ships, a re-created 19th-century coastal village and working preservation shipyard.
Crow Fair; Billings, Montana
August 2008 marks the 90th anniversary of Crow Fair, an annual get-together of 6 reservation districts of the Crow Tribe in southeastern Montana. Because so many bands of the same tribe are involved, organizers bill the event as a "giant family reunion under the Big Sky." The description is apt.
The 5-day shindig is held outside Billings, along the Little Big Horn River just south of the site of General Custer's last stand. Like most powwows, this one revolves around dancing and drumming. In between performances of ceremonial songs, participants engage in a rodeo, a horse race and parades.
The parades - which conclude the festivities each day - are by far the biggest draw. Those visitors who have horses usually ride them; others adorn their cars and trucks with colorful (and sometimes wacky) decorations and use them instead. In some years, the processional stretches for close to a mile. Onlookers hoot and holler as the queue files by.