Contemporary powwows bring together Native Americans from many different Nations and provide communities a chance to gather and celebrate. Each of the eleven federally recognized American Indian Nations in Wisconsin, including the Oneida Nation, hosts powwows. At a Traditional Powwow, a family might honor the return of a lost relative. Elders might present an eagle feather to a youth for her accomplishments in school. Vendors sell shirts, beads, books, hats, and other goods. Drum groups honor veterans through songs. Feasts provide a chance to connect with relatives in an informal setting over traditional foods, and spectators can be immersed in Native American cultures. A Contest Powwow includes many similar elements to a Traditional with one key difference, drums and dancers compete for prize money. Dancers at the Oneida Veterans Pow Wow featured in this story compete in Fancy, Grass, Jingle, Smoke, and Traditional dance.
The drum is the heartbeat of powwow, and powwow singers have an important role in American Indian communities, keeping the beat. One singer and dancer, Dylan Jennings, a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, studies Anthropology, Environmental Studies, and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Amid his studies, he finds time to travel with the drum group Midnite Express. The group sings at powwows across the nation from California to New York. Like professional athletes, it is not uncommon for singers and dancers to devote their lives to practice and competition. For others like Dylan, singing and dancing provide an opportunity to bring communities together, to help others connect with Native languages and cultures, and to reaffirm a sense of personal cultural identity. Dylan dances the Men's Traditional dance, which for him mimics hunting movements.
In addition to his studies in Madison, Dylan works with young American Indian students from local schools. They gather together once a week to learn how to sing, drum, and care for a drum. The group is called Red Feather, and Dylan takes his role as teacher and drum keeper seriously, skipping out on other activities like snowboarding in order to spend time teaching. The Red Feather singers also learn how to live in a good way. While part of a drum group, singers are required to stay away from drugs and alcohol. “I try to lead a very healthy and drug free life, and being a part of the powwow circle and staying involved academically helps to keep me on that ‘Red Road,’” explains Dylan. He hopes that the youth in Red Feather choose to follow his lead. Even though powwows are community events, singing can be a deeply personal way of connecting with traditional languages and cultures.
Some drums have singers from a single nation, and their songs, language, and style often reflect the unique cultural traditions of that nation. Other drums have singers from many different nations, with each singer adding a distinctive cultural perspective to the sound and style of the drum. Midnite Express is made up of singers come from Ojibwe, Menominee, Sioux, and Ho-Chunk nations. Some of their songs include words in their traditional languages and others incorporate English words. Some songs are simply sung using “vocables,” making them more universal. The more in unison are the singers in a group, the stronger the song, the stronger the heartbeat, and the stronger is the connection between the drum, the singers, the dancers, and the community. Dylan concludes, “When I look out into the dance arena and see hundreds of dancers rockin’ out to our music, it lifts my spirit to a better place. We don’t sing for the prize money, we sing for that feeling.”
Remixing powwow music is a recent trend among young Native DJs. Part of the soundtrack for this video, the song "Electric Pow Wow Drum," is a remix by A Tribe Called Red that demonstrates this blend of traditional and modern in contemporary Native music.