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The Meskwaki Annual Powwow, a century-old tradition, returns to Tama this week


Meskwaki Annual Powwow

1600 Battle Ground Road and E49, Tama -- Aug. 11-14, starting at 1 p.m.


The Meskwaki Nation’s green and red flag, courtesy of the tribe’s Facebook page.

The Meskwaki Annual Powwow has returned after two years of cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-day celebration, which commemorates the end of summer, will begin today and last through Aug. 14.

This will be the 106th powwow since the event’s inception in 1913, though its roots trace even further back to the Green Corn Dance and other social events in the tribe’s history. The Green Corn Dance was held annually during the harvest season. The tribe reserved some of the corn crop for dancing and feasting, which lasted two to three weeks, while the rest of the corn was boiled and dried. The annual event would feature horse racing, gambling and sports.

After the celebration, families returned to their winter hunting grounds. In the spring, the tribe would reconvene to repair their summer homes and begin the sowing season. Families lived in one village during summer while planting and harvesting from one large field.

This seasonal culture continued until the winter of 1901-1902, when a smallpox epidemic spread throughout the village. Forty-five people passed away from the disease. Following the outbreak, the federal government razed the village and built scattered houses throughout their Settlement.

This changed not only their agricultural traditions — since families now planted and harvested near their homes, instead using a communal area — but their social gatherings, too. In lieu of the Green Corn Dance, the tribe created a “Field Days” event, which lasted a week. While it retained dancing and horse racing, the event didn’t include the harvest.

“Field Days” continued from 1902 until 1912. It attracted visiting crowds from across the Midwest, and as more people attended the event, the tribe decided to incorporate a commercial element. They renamed the celebration to “Powwow” in 1913. It has been held on the Meskwaki Powwow Grounds at 1600 Battle Ground Road, off of Tama County E49, ever since.

The Meskwaki Annual Powwow begins with the Grand Entry. Attendees stand as Meskwaki veterans carry the United States flag, Meskwaki Nation flag, POW flag and the Iowa state flag. Special powwow guests enter next, including the Head Man dancer, Head Woman dancer and the Nation’s princess. They are followed by the men dancers, women dancers and the youth and children. The Grand Entry is held twice per day at 1 and 7 p.m.

Once everyone has entered the arena, singers perform the Flag Song, the Nation’s anthem, which is sung at the beginning of most events. The Meskwaki Flag Song honors the people who served in the armed forces.

Afterwards, the opening dances begin. These dances, which have been passed down and adapted over the years, often represent the natural world, religious customs, hand-to-hand combat and tribal history. The dancers wear colorful regalia, which can weigh more than 40 pounds. The regalia is hand-crafted, taking multiple years to construct. It is a visual representation of the dancer’s heritage and identity.

Although the festival atmosphere is friendly, the Meskwaki ask visitors to be respectful. Don’t touch the dancer’s regalia, record the drums or photograph others without permission. Alcohol, drugs and firearms aren’t allowed on the grounds.

The powwow costs $7 for adults, $5 for children aged 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under. Admission is reduced to $3 for children on Thursday, for elders 55 and older on Friday, and veterans on Saturday. For those who are unable to attend in-person, the powwow will be streamed online.


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