At the Pahrump, Nevada, powwow, you can hear the beat within you. Listen to the call of the singers, and watch dancers honor their ancestors. Let the music move you into stories told through the sound of the drums, known as the universal heartbeat of the nation.
Native American music and dance date back thousands of years. Those traditions continue as tribes and the general public join together to celebrate life.
The Pahrump Social Powwow—and others like it—keep Native American customs alive by sharing the artistry and traditions with the next generation and the broader population.
Zia Pueblo and Chickasaw Native American dancer Chris Hixenbaugh has been dancing since he was 5 years old. He continues to dance, including at the Pahrump Powwow.
His love and appreciation for his Native American heritage are clear.
“I just love going to powwows,” Chris says, struggling for the words to describe his favorite part about the Pahrump Powwow. “I love dancing, making new friends, and seeing my old friends and family there.”
That strong connection between family and friends is exhibited in music and the shared experience of powwows.
Native American beliefs are rooted in all things living and spiritual. Life and death are viewed as an inevitable circle. Powwow ceremonies celebrate this circle with tribal drums, dancing, traditional healing rituals and chanting.
The success of the Pahrump Powwow requires months of hard work and preparation. From organizing the event to practicing dances and crafting regalia, everyone strives to make it a moving and unforgettable experience.
Organizer Paula Elefante anticipates 500 to 750 people will attend the November 2021 event, which unites Native American tribes for a three-day celebration filled with drummers, dancers, musicians, food and craftsmen.
Native Americans and nonnatives alike gather for cultural festivities that uplift, embrace and educate others in the culture.
An integral part of powwows is the deep, roaring beat of tribal drums.
The instruments serve as a way for Native American people to connect with the spiritual world and with their people. They call upon people to dance, sing and celebrate.
Aztec dancer Aldofo Arteaga says the powerful tribal drums connect everyone through the beats that are not only heard but felt.
Tribes believe the sound compares to a human’s heartbeat and ultimately signifies the heartbeat of Mother Earth. Whether dancing, singing or listening, the sounds and rhythms ground everyone to the heartbeat of Mother Earth.
“The drums move everything,” Aldofo says. “That’s when the magic starts, and everyone becomes part of the whole.”
As the sound and feel of the drums beat, Aldofo says he feels transported into ancient times.
“It’s like a portal,” he says.
With the pounding drums at the Pahrump Powwow, each tribe gathers for its own tribal dances in addition to an intertribal dance. Styles include men’s chicken, grass, fancy, traditional and straight dances and women’s buckskin, cloth, jingle and fancy shawl dances.
At the core, powwows are a celebration of life—of heart and soul.
Chris knows firsthand the power of participating in traditional dance. He credits dance with helping him turn his life around.
In 1999, Chris lost his house and all his handmade regalia in a fire.
“From there, I basically turned my life upside down,” he says. “Instead of moving forward, I moved backward. I started partying, drinking and doing drugs.”
The downward spiral lasted 16 years. Then, the spark within him was reignited through his passion for dancing.
As Chris resumed dancing, he was overcome with emotion.
“When I first stepped back into the arena during grand entry, I had chills—the good kind of chills,” he says.
The dance community embraced Chris. His friends and family celebrated his homecoming and encouraged him, welcoming him back to the powwow.
He says that is the point where he made a decision to change his ways.
“I didn’t look at my past, I looked toward the future,” Chris says. “It’s like I had never left. When you’ve been dancing since you were 5, there’s no way you can stop dancing.”
Powwows are an important expression of Native Americans’ identity. They are sacred social gatherings that honor culture. For Chris, that sacredness is a way of life.
“When we’re out there in that arena, that circle is our church,” Chris says. “We’re not only there dancing, we’re also there to heal people. Every step and dance that we do out there in the arena is a prayer we’re sending out. That’s our church that we do our praying at.”
Aldofo describes the arena as a symbol of energy generated through the power of everyone there.
Jicarilla Apache Native American dancer Candice Hixenbaugh also has been dancing since a young age.
“When I dance, I pray,” she says. “I dance for those who can’t dance, those who came before us and those to come after us.”
For Candice, powwows play a key role in preserving history and passing traditions on to future generations.
“It’s important to pass down our traditions and culture to our children so that they can teach their children and so on and so forth,” Candice says.
She hopes each powwow visitor and participant will become more educated about Native American culture.
“By dancing, it shows everyone that our culture is still out there, and we have not gone anywhere,” Chris adds.
Aldofo values the rich culture of powwows and honors his ancestors by upholding their traditions.
“I’m here on Earth to pass these traditions down,” he says. “That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re passing it on. That’s why we do powwows. We bring people together through ceremony.
“We do this for the love of humanity.”
10 Etiquette Tips
Customs, rules and regulations vary from one celebration to another. Be respectful of the uniqueness of each event.
- Dress modestly. Avoid wearing swimsuits, short clothing, and shirts with inappropriate or questionable slogans.
- Always listen to the master of ceremonies or announcers.
- Stand during opening ceremonies. Standing is a sign of respect for the dancers as they enter.
- Do not sit in seats nearest to the dancing circle. These are reserved for singers, dancers and drummers.
- Respect your elders. When possible, give up your seat to an elder or let them move ahead of you in line.
- Some songs require you know the routine to participate. If you are not familiar with a particular dance, observe and learn.
- Do not point fingers.
- Never cross the arena floor. Stay on the perimeter.
- Absolutely no drugs or alcohol are permitted.
- Do not refer to the dancer’s attire as a “costume.” It is their regalia. Regalia is handmade and takes months to make.
- At certain times, the audience will be asked to not take photos. These include during veterans songs, flag songs, prayers or any time announced by the master of ceremonies.
- When in doubt, ask about the appropriateness of taking photos. Ask a dancer for permission before taking an individual picture.
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