During the especially hot first weekend of June, in the small Arizona town of Pinetop, the White Mountain Apache Tribe held their 16th annual Pow Wow in the Pines. Staged by the tribe’s Hon-Dah Resort-Casino, the pow wow is known for a few things that keep dancers from all over the Southwest coming year after year: big money, mild weather and Apache hospitality. Two out of three was more than enough to make the event a rousing success this year.
The overall pow wow boss and a casino employee, Sharon Walker, was selling commemorative T-shirts under a rustic canopy made of weathered pine logs. When describing the pow wow's origin as a “welcome mat” for her tribe, Walker swelled with pride while naming the numerous tribes represented. "We have no admission charge like other pow wows, and we opened up free camping to about 80 dancers, charging them only for showers," Walker said while folding shirts that were almost immediately purchased.
Mary Stuckenberg of Payson, Arizona was admiring her recent purchase of an Apache bracelet with her daughter and granddaughter while they circled the grounds, taking it all in. "I fell in love with this bracelet and the woman who sold it to me explained that it was the Butterfly of Life. I just lost my husband in October so it's appropriate," Stuckenberg said. She appreciated the scene and how important pow wows are to Natives and what care they take with their regalias. "It was awesome to see, just awesome, the spirituality of the whole thing."
Happy to see all the Navajo dancers—of the more than 270 registered dancers, approximately 80 percent were Navajo–and proud they decided to come to his tribe's pow wow, was Apache and self-described "partier" Chris Danford. "This is not our pow wow, but we host it," Danford joked. He described the pow wow as a Navajo one because of their large numbers and the certainty that many would win big in Pinetop. "It all belongs to the Navajos because they got the big reservation, they got their big fair. We have one drive-thru and how many does Window Rock have?" Danford said, with a laugh. "But this is a small rez and they have fun here, and I like them as brothers."
Not everything was exactly as it should be according to veteran pow wow dancer: Ed Scott, Ute/Navajo, of Rabbit Brush, Arizona. Although the golden-ager admired how far the event had come since he first visited in the mid-1990s, he was visibly disappointed that he and the men in his category only received one song to dance to. "The other golden-age ladies and men had two songs and for us northern, we only got one song," Scott exclaimed, moving about and looking around as if there was still some way to appeal the perceived injustice. "We came from a long ways away and we just want to dance, boogie, boogie, boogie!"
Navajo/Ho-Chunk dancer Bria Gray of Phoenix was challenged by the altitude while dancing her second song. The young woman with a perspiring forehead said she still managed to do just fine despite not being prepared for the difference in elevation. "I felt the elevation get to me but I pushed through and I felt good afterwards," Gray said as she struggled a bit to regain her breath.
As the night wore on, Harley Upton Jr. of Nebraska reflected on what it meant to attend a rare Apache pow wow. Dressed as a northern traditional dancer with a big eagle-feather bustle and an intricate yet menacing tricolor paint scheme on his face, Upton felt proud to be among Apache dancers even though this is not his people's way. Apache ways are more sacred and seldom open to the public according to him. "I know there's not many Apache pow wow dancers and I'm glad to be in this land dancing where my Dad's roots come from." He explained that although his father's Apache reservation is not far away from this one, these Apaches are his people.