From March 21 to 23, members of nearly 100 nations from more than 30 states will gather at the Denver Coliseum in Colorado’s capital city for the annual Denver March Powwow.
This year, the dancers, drum groups, artists and spectators will do more than kick off a new pow wow season, however. They also will celebrate the 40th anniversary of an event that has grown from modest beginnings to become a major draw throughout Indian country.
According to Grace B. Gillette, the Denver March Powwow’s executive director, the event’s roots lie in the 1950s Urban Indian Relocation Program. This U.S. government encouraged those who were living on reservations to move to seven major urban areas around the nation — and between 1950 and 1980, hundreds of thousands did exactly that. “The relocation program gave Denver its core base of Indians,” Gillette told ICTMN.
The not-for-profit Denver Indian Center was created to support young urban Indians and their families through programs that focused on self-determination, cultural identity and education. In the early 1970s, the center started its Youth Enrichment Program.
“The young people wanted to learn to dance, to sing,” Gillette said. “This really was a reaction to assimilation. The center began offering classes so they could learn to dance and to make their own clothes.”
The young people would host fashion-show fundraisers so they could attend pow wows on the reservations during the summer months. There was so much interest from Denver’s children, Gillette said, that the center decided to develop the Youth Enrichment Powwow. That way, the young people could participate in a pow wow close to home. “They chose March because it was spring break, and families could come,” she said. “They’d have naming ceremonies for girls and boys, so they could earn the right to wear their eagle feathers and plumes. By the third year, people were calling about it.”
The pow wow’s growth had its challenges, particularly when it came to maintaining traditions. “The hardest part about organizing the pow wow is keeping it the same,” explained Gillette, who has served as its executive director since 1991 and was involved as a committee co-chair and volunteer prior to that. “Every year we get bombarded with requests and new ideas.
But we’ve seen other events get too commercialized; they lose their initial intent. “This is the closest thing to a traditional pow wow in an urban setting,” she said. “That makes it unique.”
The Denver March Powwow also has made a concerted effort to focus on camaraderie over competition. In fact, Gillette pointed out that the prize money for adults is less than what teens win at other events. “The prize money other groups offer ensures that the competitiveness will outweigh the camaraderie,” she said. “For us, the money is not that important. Our major goal remains providing an event for Indian children… a place to go, an opportunity to see they’re not alone. We want to give them a sense of pride and confidence in who they are.
“Once, a reporter asked a participant what the pow wow was like,” she continued. “The dancer responded that the feeling was like getting a big hug from a favorite grandma. That’s what makes the Denver Powwow special.”
Pow wow organizers also have their sights set on the non-Native people who will be in the crowd of 50,000-plus spectators during the three-day event. “Our other goal is to educate as many people as possible,” Gillette said. “We are not gone. We didn’t just go to reservations and disappear. We are alive, well and thriving in America.”
At the 2013 Denver March Powwow, more than 1,000 registered dancers represented 95 tribes from 35 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces, and the grand entry comprised more than 1,500 dancers. Overall attendance was more than 50,000, with spectators hailing from 49 states and 25 countries.
Last year, an impressive 38 drum groups registered. An interesting footnote: 10 years ago, the Denver March Powwow set an international record with a whopping 73 registered drum groups.
Since the pow wow’s mission is to preserve and protect the traditional performing arts of American Indian people, the dance competition and music festival understandably attracts significant attention. Yet Gillette is quick to mention that the event also incorporates an arts and crafts show with more than 185 booths. It is, she said, one of the largest Indian markets in the country.
Will there be anything special for the 40th anniversary? “We maintain traditions, so there’s nothing different,” Gillette said. “However, we are trying to reach all the women who have been Denver March Powwow Princesses. They’re our ambassadors, so we’d like to recognize them.”
Serving as head judges this year are Clair Fox and Billy Komahcheet. Fox, Arikara, Lakota Sioux and Chippewa Cree fromWhite Shield, North Dakota, is a lifelong grass dancer and singer. In the Denver Coliseum’s lower-foyer, attendees will find Northern Cheyenne storyteller Phillip Whiteman Jr. and Apsaalooke storyteller Christian Takes Gun Parrish, aka Supaman.
Also on hand will be the 2013 Denver March Powwow Princess, Miss Symone Rheanne Paskemin. Finally, Lawrence Baker, grandson of the Denver March Powwow’s first announcer, will serve as master of ceremonies.
The 2014 Denver March Powwow runs from March 21 to 23. Admission is $7 per day, or $20 for a three-day pass. Children aged 6 and under are free, and those aged 60 and over will pay $3 per day or $9 for a three-day pass. For more information, visit Denver MarchPowwow.org.