The introduction of the Drum Dance was the work of a Sioux girl who, in 1876, whilst fleeing from the white soldiers who had killed all the other members of her band, concealed herself for about twenty hours in a lake. Eventually the spirits offered her help, and told her that she must teach a new dance to all the Indian tribes. The girl apparently went from tribe to tribe teaching the dance, enjoining Indians to put away the small drums they had used and to use larger ones, and to discontinue their war and pipe dances in favour of the new dance. Only the new large drum would be sufficient to keep away bad spirits. The dance appears to have spread to the Chippewa in the late 1870s, and from them to the Menomini. To the original story there was an accretion of various myths-of the girl acquiring invisibility and so escaping the soldiers, for example- but the more important aspects are the organization of the cult, the rituals and the ethical injunctions.
The central rituals of the Powwow consisted of both weekly and seasonal performances. The drum, which was invested with power from the spirits, was the central object of the cult. It was itself sacred, and was a symbol of the supernatural, much as the cross or the altar in Christianity. It was also a symbol of the world. In the rituals the beat of the drum, undertaken in unison by the principal officers of the cult, was all-pervasive. To this beat the dances were performed. The officers of the organization symbolized different spirit beings. One, usually the drum-owner, impersonated the Great Spirit; others the thunderbirds who were protective agents for the tribe; yet four more represented the spirits of the four cardinal points of the compass...
....The drum chief was responsible for selecting the other members of the organization, all of whom had important ritual functions- drumming, singing, dancing, offering sacrifices, attending to the dancing ground, and looking after the pipes which form so important a part of the sacrificial system. Women participated as helpers to the singers, and one, the drum woman, represented the Sioux woman to whom the cult had been first revealed.
The purpose of the rituals was to strengthen the ties between the members and the spirits. The normal weekly rite consisted of songs, most of which were sung four times. It is possible that the first songs which were sung were intended to discharge bad spirits, with later ones that expressed the joy of living, although this does not appear to have been formally established. Special handshake songs are included… The dancers danced as each song was sung, although over the years the dancing became less ecstatic and more of a formality. There were prayers and the drum chief usually preached, both on the ethical injunctions of the faith and on the original myth of the acquisition of the cult. The pipes were smoked by the officials as an offering to the spiriits, they symbolized a pipe of peace among mankind. Like the drums, the pipes were embellished with symbolic designs. The seasonal rites secured the the help of the spirits for the forthcoming season.
Gatherings on these occasions used to last several days, until the influence of the white man’s working week made such prolonged religious festivities difficult to organize. Food was also consecrated (invested with spirit power) and became part of the sacrificial offering in these rites, which also included private songs for the support of the male officials, each of whom danced while his song was being sung. The elaborate belts, decorated with feathers, were used by the men who represented the thunderbirds, and who danced to protect the weaker members of the community: others also danced with the belts, to acquire special protection. Special rites were undertaken to bring individuals who were in mouring back into the community of their fellows, and in the early days of the dance there were customs acquired from the Plains cultures, particularly the divorce songs, in which divorces were solemnized, and warrior songs-although these were somewhat inconsistent with the brotherly ethic of the Powpow… An important feature of the seasonal rituals was the presentation of gifts to people from other tribes who were present. This epitomized the central ethical ideals of the Powwow.
The ethical injunctions recounted as the instructions of the Great Spirit (or the spirits) to the Sioux woman emphasized a few simple propositions, which are remarkable when the warlike virtues of the Indian past are recalled. The dance was given for all Indians, and the drum was a manifestation of the Great Spirit's will to help his people, the Indian people. Indians were not to fight each other or cheat each other. They were not to be angry, nor to be jealous. They were to help each other in every way. The ethic was taught by exhortation and by formal didactic orations in the Powwow. The cult had no specific eschatology but inherited the general pantheon of Indian spirit beings, both good and evil, and accepted the need to make offerings to the good, and to placate the evil (although this last item became increasingly vestigial). The spirits themselves, as represented in the drum, were the fountain-head of help for all Indians in all their enterprises, including such common tasks as deer-hunting and berry-picking.
The Powwow and its dances superseded the older dances of the tribes in which it gained adherents. The war dance and the buffalo dance, for reasons which their very names suggest, were rarely performed by the early 1950s. The medicine dance still lingered on among the older people… In its early days, the Powwow cult was also known as the Dream Dance and this presumably related to the vision experience of the Sioux girl.
Source: Bryan Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Heinemann, 1973).