Traditional does not inherently mean historical in nature. This is a mistake that becomes the basis of many heated debates. Many have claimed that such things as powwow culture is not traditional because elements such as the big drum and jingle dress dance are actually only about 100 years old, born of one tribe and now claimed to be traditional of several tribes. There was a time when a mass exchange of ‘traditions’ took place mainly because of forced residency near each other on reservations. The sideshows and entertainment productions such as “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” also helped to spread cultural beliefs, practices, and materials from one tribe to another. For example, Iroquois and Ojibwa performers were dressed in plains style beaded buckskin garments, their hair styled into double braids, and were staged with tepees. This was done because Eastern Native cultures were not “Indian” enough. White people expected all Native Americans to wear beaded buckskin and feathered headdresses. This continues today. Many may find your museum’s exceptional exhibits of your local or regional historic Indian cultures not “Indian” enough. They may be disappointed to find out that tepees and totem poles were not utilized by the Eastern Native Peoples. Believe it or not, many may choose to block out parts of your tour and museum’s exhibits because it messes with their comfortable worldview of what they want Native Americans to live and look like. Many would rather learn from today’s Powwow culture as it may fit their expectations of what Native People should be.
Powwows have become a major concern in many Native communities today because of this reason: that Native Americans are showcasing what white people think is “Indian” and claiming it as tradition, sacrificing their actual traditions to fit a stereotype that serves the outsiders. However, most Native powwow participants identify with powwow traditions because much of their own Native cultural practices and values have been possibly lost or mixed in the larger Pan-Indian culture. Pan-Indian culture is the practices, religion, and values of many tribes that created a new Native American culture in reservation communities. Pan-Indian culture allowed Native Peoples who lost much of their tribe’s culture to recapture their Native identity and relate to Native Americans from other tribes. Most Powwows are Pan-Indian in nature, and because most Pan-Indian practices tend to be extremely universal and no more than 150 years old, they become labeled ” untraditional” by the historical community (by museum programs, living history exhibits, and historical reenactments). This is not exactly true because the traditional does not need to be historical.
Tradition is what a culture, community, family or person defines their ethnic, religious, and/or cultural practices and beliefs as. There are national pastimes and annual family gatherings – all tradition. Tradition implies to most antiquity of a practice of belief system. Tradition can have antiquity, such as hot-stone cooking and clambakes that date back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Or, tradition could be the famous Native American fry bread, born of the reservation period when government rations were distributed that included white flour. Fry bread is only a couple hundred years old, but is no less traditional than Eastern Indian clam bakes. This is where traditional and historical cross paths.
Every interpreter needs to recognize the difference between traditional and historical. For example, implying powwow regalia is not traditional because the materials and pattern have no antiquity (as especially the reenactment community is known to do) is not true. However, just because powwow regalia is traditional does not mean it is historical. You cannot base your interpretation or exhibit of Late Woodland to 19th century Indian societies on Pan-Indian customs. For example, a Powwow takes its name from New England Indian terminology referring to both a kind of religious healer and the action of gathering to heal a person (ex. one could powwow to heal, or speak to the powwow). Today’s traditional powwows resemble nothing of the historic powwowing of 17th century New England.
(The author of this short article conducts public programs about historic Woodland Indian cultures for museums, Powwows, and historical reenactments. She also conducts interpretive workshops for museum tour guides, and this article represents a topic addressed in her “Interpretive Troubleshooting Workshop”.)