This year’s Denver March Powwow is about to begin, yet Ken LaDeaux knows how, for him, it will end. “Every year before the powwow I see the Coliseum when it’s empty, and I’m happy—happy to know it’s coming, to know I’ll see the grandchildren of people who came to the earliest Denver pow wows,” says the president of the event. “And every year I see the empty Coliseum at the end too—and I’m sad that it’s over.”
The Denver March Powwow, scheduled this year for March 23–25, isn’t just a staple on the powwow circuit: It’s the beginning of it. It’s neither the largest nor the oldest annual pow wow, but it’s come to mark the start of the season, drawing more than 50,000 people each year to the Denver Coliseum for a weekend of arts and crafts, dance and drums, and, as always, fellowship.
Now in its 38th year, the powwow began in 1974 as a weekly event then called the Youth Enrichment Powwow, sponsored by the Denver Indian Center. By the late ‘70s the powwow had become an entity distinct from the Denver Indian Center, becoming annual instead of weekly, and gaining an organizing committee solely dedicated to organizing what would become the major inaugural pow wow of the season. In 1984 the Denver March Powwow became incorporated as a business no longer officially affiliated with the Denver Indian Center. “When we become incorporated officially we moved from having a cochair to having a president,” says LaDeaux, who has been involved with the powwow for 28 years, 24 of them as president. “Dealing with government officials—they understood what a president was, but they didn’t understand what cochairs were, just like they didn’t understand what a chief was.”
Still, incorporation allowed for the powwow to grow exponentially. As a business, the pow wow could hire employees: Executive director Grace Gillette began to function as an employee of the pow wow as a result of incorporation, allowing her to operate out of an office and handle administrative duties, providing a firmer framework for tackling the logistical tangles that accompany any large-scale event.
And large it is. With 180 vendors, including a vast array of craftspeople and artisans, dozens of competitions, and more than 50,000 spectators every year, the Denver March Powwow might be considered a behemoth were it not for the committee’s continued focus on making sure the event is truly for all in the community. The large number of vendors belies a conscious effort to make booth space available to all craftspeople: “Some commercial vendors could buy bigger spaces, but we limit how many booths each one can have, allowing smaller vendors to be there,” says LaDeaux. “A lot of times you’re buying crafts from the person who made them.”
Youth enrichment may no longer officially be a part of the organization’s larger mission, but it remains at the heart of what the Denver March Pow Wow stands for. “We’ve always had some level of involvement with the youth and community,” says LaDeaux. “The pow wow originated for the benefit of the youth, for the culture, so we’ve kept it like that.”
The spirit of cooperation over competition even shows up in, well, the competitions. “Even though we’re a contest pow wow, it’s nowhere near the prize money other contests offer. It’s not all money. People come to dance for the pleasure of dancing and the friendship, even though there are contests,” says LaDeaux. The same holds true of the drums: The Denver March Powwow doesn’t invite selected drums. Rather, they invite all drums. “The Denver March Powwow is probably the only large urban pow wow that has an open invitation to all drum groups,” Gillette told Indian Country Today Media Network last year. “It gives the elders and young people a chance to take part in a large celebration along with drummers that are at their peak.”
But it wasn’t just the ethos of the event that made it one of the premier powwows in the nation. Geography, Indian relocation, and American cultural history came together to shape the March gathering into what it is today. First of all, the Indian community in Denver is a rich tapestry of nations, from Southwestern tribes and Northern Plains nations, plus a number of tribal members spilling over from neighboring Oklahoma. Simple geography had a hand in this—Colorado was a crossroads for all these groups—but so did the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In 1952, in hopes of ameliorating the high poverty rate among American Indians, the federal government instituted the Urban Indian Relocation Program. The program was supposed to help Indians from reservations find employment in a number of American cities where jobs were easier to come by—Denver included. The program’s quality of success is questionable; relocated persons were to be supplied with temporary housing and community resources to ease the transition into urban life, but that wasn’t always what happened. But on paper, the relocation was a quantifiable success: Before the program began, 8 percent of Indians lived in urban areas. Today, that number is 64 percent.
In the midst of this migration—perhaps in part because of it—sprang an era of renewed American Indian consciousness. Denver was one of the hotbeds of indigenous activism in the 1970s; demonstrators protested unfair treatment by the BIA. It was fertile ground for an important powwow to grow, harnessing not only growing Native American pride but a thriving interest in the non-Indian community about indigenous issues. Indeed, education is a crucial part of the Denver March Powwow, both as a community service and as a business tactic.
“A great deal of our efforts have always been to incorporate families and the non-Indian community,” says LaDeaux. “On the Friday of the pow wow we have kids from different schools come—it’s pretty much a youth day. They get acquainted with what’s going on, and then they can bring their parents the next day. It’s cheaper for a family to go to a powwow than to a movie, and we’re educating the non-Indian population in a diverse way.”
Part of the pow wow’s success is sheer timing: Though there are powwows throughout the winter, the sense of renewal that accompanies spring means that the first pow wow held during that time marks the start of the new pow wow season as well. Dancers bring out their new regalia, and there’s even a hint of superstition in the air. “Some of the dancers have told me that it’s important to do well here—that if you win the March pow wow, it’s a sign you’ll have a good season,” says LaDeaux.
From the opening beats of the pow wow’s theme song, “A Living Hoop” by Howard Bad Hand and Red Leaf Takoja—the Denver March Powwow was one of the first pow wows to have a custom theme song, now a more common practice—to the moment when LaDeaux takes in one last look of the empty arena on Sunday night, the Denver March Powwow will be a celebration. Of history, of togetherness, of youth and families, and even the snow-capped mountains surrounding the arena. For as the lyrics of “A Living Hoop” make clear, the powwow is inseparable from its geography.
He Ska Oyate Ki! Oskate ki le luhapi
ki Cangleska ca niun welo. Sitomniya,
Tankasila nan Unci Maka ko,
Onciyapi nan Wiyuskinya waci au welo!
White Mountain People!
This celebration that you have
is Living Hoop.
From all over the universe,
even Grandfather Creator and Grandmother Earth
help you, and all joyfully come to dance!