Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Auburn Pow-wow
Trip Date: October 17, 2009
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: October 21, 2009

Three persons assembled into a carpool and drove three hours to the Auburn Big Time and Pow-wow on Saturday, October 17 in California Gold Country just east of Sacramento.

All I can say is: Wow! This was a very interesting, colorful and entertaining event. I planned to stay only two or three hours. (This was based on my estimate of the patience of my colleagues - I figured I'd wait until they got restless and then beg another half hour out of them!) But it almost turned out that I was to be the one who had to beg the others to leave! If it hadn't been for an unexpected migrane headache brought about by the hot sun, we probably would have stayed well past the dinner hour.

Most pow-wows follow a somewhat standard itinerary, but some tend to be kind of unpredictable events. Some have sketchy dates because participants just show up within a general period of time while others are well organized. Pow-wows are generally held in a large public area, and the Auburn Fairgrounds was the perfect spot for this one! Pow-wows are events that center upon communal drumming and dancing - dances are spiritual as well as competitive. The dances take place in a designated circle (sometimes more than one circle) at the center of the event, while everything else becomes a satellite of the dance events - food, crafts, social service outreach tents, etc. The drums and dancers are all important. The drum (usually played by a group) is considered an honored person at the event. (You should never mess with a drum at a pow-wow!) The group that plays the drum for the event is called the "Host Drum," and the drum group that plays for the Gourd Dance is called the "Southern Drum."

Besides the drumming and dancing, many other traditions are observed at a pow-wow. Dancers always enter the dance circle from the east - great attention is paid to the symbolic four points of the compass. The dance circle is an endless circle,a symbol of the way life continues unbroken - nearly every detail of the event is significant and symbolic.

The pow-wow is a fascinating look into the numerous cultures that predated our various immigrant cultures of the United States. In fact, the reason that pow-wows are open to the public is to promote a better understanding of the native culture, and that's a good thing. Even though most of the tribes of the Americas got a raw deal over the past few centuries, (some were wiped out entirely) their dance, music and art still survive. They told us that they allowed us to photograph as a way to help preserve some of their traditions.

The Auburn dance circle was the perfect size for this event and made it a large but intimate event. It allowed plenty of room for the dancers, involved the spectators and gave us outsiders the feeling that we were welcome in this mostly Native American activity. Sometimes if the dance circle is too large you can feel fairly isolated and the photo opportunities are sparse, but kudos to the Auburn organizing committee, which created a gem of an event!

Most of the dancing was open to photography, save for a few dances performed by the native California Miwok Tribe and the Kiowas from Oklahoma. (Their dances were strictly off limits to photography, and we complied with their wishes.) Photographing at a pow-wow is the equivalent of taking pictures during a church service or taking a camera to a temple. It requires a lot of sensitivity to the hosts' requirements on the part of the photographer. The organizers of this pow-wow, however, were relatively generous to the still photographers in attendance. Those shooting videos or shooting images intended for commercial uses, however, were strongly discouraged - and recording of video images was prohibited altogether.

The word pow-wow comes from the Narrangansett word for spiritual leader. The Narrangansett Tribe had occupied the Rhode Island area of New England for 30,000 years and is part of the Algonquin Language group. The name came from the East Coast, but most of the activities at a pow-wow, the drumming, the dress, the style of dancing and some of the songs were heavily influenced by the Native Americans of the Great Plains of the US and Canada. (There were Kiowas from Oklahoma at this particular pow-wow.)

Modern Native American dress has evolved from its earlier manifestations a hundred or more years ago. The traditional colors of nature (many of them quite bright - reds, blues, yellows, etc.) having been supplanted by the "Day Glow" hues of recent times. Even the traditional dancers of Hawaii, New Zealand, Tahiti, and other cultures have incorporated these brighter colors into their dances. As a photographer, I shouldn't whimper because it certainly makes for even more colorful events! (But I wish I could see them wear their original colors of a century ago.)

We saw many different dances, including several traditional dances from the Miwoks, a Kiowa Gourd Dance (outlawed by the US government in the late 1800s) as well as the competitive dances: men's and women's fancy dancers, women's jingle dancers, etc. Dancers ranging in age from babies to 90-year-olds entered the dance circle. Everyone at the event was invited to dance during the "Intertribal" dance, where tribal and non-tribal dancers make their way around the circle. The intertribal dance is the only time that non-Indians are welcome in the dance circle.

The event was kicked off by a traditional ceremony and blessing called the Grand Entry, led by a well-ordered heirarchy that includes the head male dancer and the head female dancer and tribal officials. Native American veterans carried the colors - flags of the United States and other flags, including the standards of some of the visiting tribes. Soon after the Grand Entry began, the circle was swarming with colorful dancers - truly a spectacular show for our cameras. (Some pow-wows won't let you shoot the opening ceremonies, so we considered ourselves quite fortunate.)

The second half of this trip never materialized - a visit to Locke, California, a Chinese-built town on the Sacramento River in the Delta. Oh, well, the pow-wow pretty much overpowered everything else - once again providence came through with a wonderful surprise. (We'll put Locke back on the schedule for a future trip.) We wish that most of you could have joined us on this most unexpectedly magical of trips!

© 2009 S.R. Hinrichs