Native American Powwow Tradition Celebrated in Pictures and Pride


“I dance to give thanks to Great Grandfather for giving us wonderful things–songs and dances, animals, birds, creatures, and insects; trees and plants and all human beings,” says Fabian Fontenelle, a powwow dancer of Omaha and Zuni descent.

Photo by Ben Marra

Ben Marra, a Seattle commercial photographer, and his then new bride, Linda, attended their first powwow in 1988. Ben had been commissioned by a printing company to make a photograph to showcase the color quality of the company’s latest printing capabilities.


They hit upon the idea of photographing an American Indian, a descendant of the first people to call the state of Washington home. This led them to a powwow at a rural school–and a decades-long passion that has taken the Marras to powwows across North America.

In their latest book, “Faces From the Land: Twenty Years of Powwow Tradition” (Harry N. Abrams, Inc; $30; April 2009), Ben and Linda Marra have assembled scores of vibrant portraits of dancers in ethnic costumes old and new, each one accompanied by a personal narrative. The common theme in both pictures and words is palpable pride in a sacred heritage that thrives.

“Sometimes when I dance, I feel they are watching me,” says Alden Pompana, Jr., Many Eagle Feathers Boy, of his grandparents. The Dakota Sioux dancer was initiated at the age of five into powwows by his father and grandfather.

Photo by Ben Marra

“We had no idea what to expect at a powwow,” Ben and Linda write in their book. “The stunning color and detail of the elaborate dance regalia amazed us–particularly when we learned that the designs, bustles and beadwork were usually created by the dancers and family members.”

powwow-picture-3.jpg“I am Niimiipuu, the people also known as Nez Perce,” says Angel McFarland-Sobotta. “As a University of Washington graduate I now coordinate the Nez Perce language program.”

Phot by Ben Marra

“On the Great Plains our major musical road is traditionally expressed by a community ceremony called a powwow,” writes George P. Horse Capture in the foreword of “Faces From the Land.” 

The senior counselor to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. adds that it is said that the original Narragansett word for powwow meant “medicine man.” Since then it has undergone many intepretations and means much more than today.

“To more deeply understand the dance one must understand the culture,” he writes. “Long ago there was no formal police department to protect society. Protection had to be provided by the Indian societies themselves. So the tribes developed a warrior class, whose main duties were to protect the tribe.

“When successful they were honored by their communities, reenacting their exploits accompanied by society songs while bedecked in special attire.

“This spiritual ceremony quickly spread from the Omaha tribe to the Sioux and beyond, and evolved into the powwow.”

Although Ben Marra shoots action-oriented dance scenes, the couple considers these portraits their signature work. Both the dancing photos and the portraits are published in annual calendars which help raise powwow awareness and raise funds for Native American youth groups.

As the Marras toured the powwow circuit they became aware of “this country’s appalling treatment of American Indians,” they write. “The shameful events of Wounded Knee, the Battle of the Big Hole, the Sand Creek Massacre, and the Long Walk of the Navajos, to name merely a few.”

Yet at powwows, the Marras note, “despite history’s deplorable treatment of Indians, we observed American flag motifs incorporated into dance regalia and watched as the Native spectactors respectfully stood during Grand Entry while soldiers and veterans were honored for their service in the U.S. military.”


I have learned pride, generosity, humility, and respect from my people,” says Travis Bear Ike, of the Umonhon and Ho-Chunk people in Omaha. “These and other ways are the things that I carry when I dance in the Sacred Circle.”

Photo by Ben Marra

Nothing compares with the impact of being a part of the Grand Entry of a powwow,” writes George P. Horse Capture in the foreword of “Faces From the Land.” Tracing the resurgence of Indian culture in North America and the return of Native American pride, he says: “This book is a good reason to celebrate the changing times.”


“The outfit I wear was given to me by my father,” says Ardell Scalplock, a Siksika powwow dancer. “My dad and I traveled to many powwows and he always taught me to have a kind word for everyone we meet. I’ve tried my best to make my dad proud, and I hope his legacy will always be carried on through me and my children.”

Photo by Ben Marra


Changing Planet

Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn