Step Back in Time and Embrace the Future

Dancer at a Seneca Pow Wow

Seneca Nation of Indians Bring Cultural Inspiration to Irving and Salamanca Pow Wow Festivals

Here in Western New York, we have Native American influence all around us. The cultural significance that the Seneca Nation of Indians has bestowed upon this area is almost unimaginable. The democratic government that they were a part of, which pre-dates the United States Constitution, was known as the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy. The Seneca were the largest of the six Native American nations. Currently the Seneca Nation has a total enrolled population of approximately 8,000 citizens.

Also known as the “Keeper of the Western Door,” the historical Seneca occupied territory throughout the Finger Lakes area in Central New York, and in the Genesee Valley in Western New York. They primarily lived in longhouses on the riversides prior to the late 1700’s when they began constructing log or plank houses.

As with any society, there have been many changes to the Seneca’s way of living over the years, and it is their adaptability that allows them to survive through all of these changes. This July, visitors to the Seneca Nation of Indians have the opportunity to enjoy two back-to-back weekends of Pow Wows - the Iroquois Post 1587 Veterans Pow Wow at the Cattaraugus Community Center in Irving, NY (July 13-15) and the Annual Seneca Allegany Casino Veterans Pow Wow in Salamanca, NY (July 21-22).

“Pow Wows did not originate in this part of the country and are a tradition that the Senecas borrowed from Native American Nations out west,” said Melissa Shaw, Tourism Development Planner for the Seneca Nation of Indians. “Some believe that the Ponca and other Southern Plains Tribes were the originators of the Pow Wow. Another belief is that when the Native American tribes were forced onto reservations the government also forced them to have dances for the public to come and see. Before each dance they were led through the town in a parade, which is the beginning of the Grand Entry. Over the course of the 20th century they evolved into intertribal gatherings that represented a variety of Native American cultures. Pow Wows began being held on Seneca Nation of Indians territories in the late 1980’s, although the locations and organizers have changed over the years.”

If the Pow Wow did truly originate from a situation where Native Americans were forced to perform for the entertainment of others, then it is an impressive testament to the perseverance of its people. Having the ability to take something that could’ve been culturally degrading and transform it into something historically significant not only takes courage but also a strong sense of societal self-awareness.

Pow Wow Traditions

Famous for their pageantry of colors and dance, which have been adapted and changed over time, Pow Wows are now held all over North America.  Many singers, dancers, and vendors follow the Pow Wow trail all over the entire continent to celebrate their respective cultures and compete in drum and dance competitions.

“Hundreds of visitors attend the annual Pow Wow to see Native dancers from the ages of newborn to 90 compete in beautifully-colored and intricately-beaded Iroquois and Plains Indian designed dance attire,” said Nancy Scott, Public Relations Chair for the Iroquois Post 1587 Veterans Pow Wow.

Pow Wow events, which are open to the public, feature family flag honorings, food and craft vendors, educational exhibits, western style and smoke dance competitions as well as drum competitions. “Many people identify the Pow Wow with the song and dance festival portion of it,” Scott said. “But one of the primary purposes underlying the event is the honoring of Native veterans and recognizing their service in the military. The genesis of the Pow Wow among Plains Indians began with honoring warriors and tribal members who gave their lives or served in battle. It is a tradition that continues among Native nations throughout Indian country.”

“The theme of this year’s Pow Wow is ‘Honor All Veterans’,” said Bud Thompson, co-chair of the Iroquois Post 1587 Veterans Pow Wow. “This reflects the Seneca people’s deep respect and appreciation for all veterans, both native and non-native.” There will be a celebration to recognize Veterans on Friday evening. Veterans, both Native and non-Native, are invited to participate in the Grand Entry where they will parade or dance in the procession of all the dancers. Educational exhibits will share Native contributions to all of America’s wars, as well as movies discussing the same and the effects of war and historical trauma.

Cultural Healing

While the historical context of the Pow Wow is immensely important, one might think that, in today’s day and age where the focus seems to always be on moving forward into the future, it could be difficult to preserve such old-fashion practices. But according to Nancy Scott, that is not the case at all. “Current dancers and drum groups do a magnificent job of teaching their children the customs, traditions, dances, etc. There is a good number of ‘tiny tots’ that dance and wear regalia.”

Scott went on to say, “In my experience of attending Pow Wows, one of my favorite parts is the dancing. The regalia are so vibrant and colorful. The dances are so energetic, elegant, and even spiritual. I also love to stand by the drum as the men sing around it. It sends chills down my spine. It is a time of social gathering, celebrating each tribe’s cultures, as well as cultural renewal and healing.”

Take some time this July to actively seek out a first-hand experience of the Seneca Indians. Not only will you be entertained but you can also contribute to some much needed cultural healing. It will be a phenomenon that will likely stay with you for the rest of your life. For more information on both the Irving and Salamanca location Pow Wows, go to www.SenecaPowWow.org.

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