In 2013, the American Indian Society (AIS) celebrated another successful Inaugural Powwow and Ball in celebration of the re-inauguration of President Barack Obama. This was the 12th Inaugural event for the AIS who marched in the inaugural parade of President Nixon and has celebrated every inauguration since watching the powwow grow into a successful event on a busy weekend every four years.
But what makes the AIS Powwow such a success? In an interview with the Assistant Director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs E. Keith Colston (Tuscarora /Lumbee) who was asked to serve as the Master of Ceremonies of the 2013 AIS Powwow alongside Vernon “Cy” Ahtone – Colston shared his own experiences on the powwow trail and explained why the AIS Powwow will continue to be a success for many years to come.
What is your experience and expertise with powwows?
I had the opportunity given to me by Barry Richardson of Pow-wows, Inc. who is Haliwa-Saponi from North Carolina to serve as an MC in Maryland in approximately 1990. From there, it was from one place to the next up and down the East Coast.
I have had the opportunity to emcee in New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Delaware, North Carolina and South Carolina and Washington D.C. I have done everything from traditional powwows where there is no contest and maybe one or two drums, to major events like the American Indian Society's Inaugural Powwow – where people from all across the nation come not to compete, but to represent a historical time.
How was it serving the AIS powwow twice as MC in the past eight years?
As this was my second time, there were two different and unique feelings being asked to MC. For President Obama’s first term, it was such an opportunity to be on a national stage. Then for the thousands of Natives who descended upon Washington D.C. to attend the powwow and the inaugural ball, all of that was historic.
Being asked four years later to serve in the same position was a representation of the East Coast. Then, with the northern style and the southern styles – I saw this as a great balance of style, singing and dancing that could be spoken about and shared to the audience. They were both great and unique opportunities each time.
One of the great things about the powwow trail, is that you have the opportunity to meet so many tribal affiliations from all across North America. Of course I also think about the Aztec Mashika people of Mexico City Mexico as well as up into Canada and all first nations’ people.
In your opinion, how has the American Indian Society's Powwow maintained its success?
It is a combination of many things. It is an educational opportunity for those who do not understand or know our Native culture. It is also an entertaining situation for Native and non-Native individuals. Not only am I sitting here enjoying what I'm seeing, and it is taking me away from whatever else is going on in the rest of the world, this is also an educational opportunity that I can continue to share with people even when I leave.
I always think whenever I am on the microphone, whenever I am at a powwow, whenever I am at a Native gathering – how is this impacting the people around me. That is a positive power that we as Indian people and those who are culturally aware, and those of us who are consultants and teachers are able to do every time it occurs.
Why do you think the American Indian Society's Powwow continues to grow?
I believe the American Indian Society's Powwow continues to prosper because they continue to invite people to be a part of what is taking place. It is not like it is a club where you have to be a certain way or being in a certain area or of a certain mind. When you come with a respectful way about you – and they want you to come, they want you to know who they are and what they are doing.
The scholarships they offer, and the opportunities they provide for people to gather together, and the legislative impact that they have amongst other individuals – The American Indian Society’s discussions are always about moving us forward. I just love being a part of whatever they do. It’s not about my opportunity; it’s about the opportunity that is going on that we all can be a part of. That is incredible.
The American Indian Society's Powwow's Outlook for 2016?
They will be celebrating once again. They will be discussing what they have achieved and will let people know that there are still a lot to be done. The American Indian Society will never be done, but they will continuously be commenting on what has occurred, who they have helped and who is helping them – and who is being added to that database of who they are working with, and who they are working for.
How do you continue to be a successful MC?
Success is definitely about being happy. To be a successful member of society can be different things. First, I am honored to have been asked to be in the position, but second is being able to teach what someone has taught me. I want people to be able to come with questions and leave with answers. That is always my goal.
Some emcees are there to teach, some emcees are there to entertain and joke around the crowd, and then you have emcees who can do both. To me, those are the greatest of emcees, who cannot only be educational, but be so entertaining, that people cut up and laugh. I am more of an educational side MC and my friends would say the same thing, you may not come to me for a joke, but you're definitely going to leave learning a lot more than what you do before you got there.
In your experience, how can you have a successful powwow?
The secret is to have a strong powwow committee. And that's where the American Indian society continuously excels. They have a strong committee who is committed to see things take place in an appropriate way. Meaning the components of the powwow have to be in place. The powwow committee is in place, they are the ones that choose the powwow staff. That staff helps to control and do things appropriately for what is going on. That will always make a strong event, as well as a pleasant event.
Even if there are things going on behind the scenes that are out of someone's control, your powwow committee and your powwow staff always make sure everything is running just as it should.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you have learned?
One of the biggest things I have learned is respect. As young people we are taught to respect our parents and our grandparents as well as your relatives and your extended family. That carries so much weight. The respect that you have for someone's knowledge and wisdom, is what I have taken away from sitting with veterans, or sitting with those who've walked that Red Road for so long.
There is also respect you have to have for the young people who are coming up behind you. You have to realize that you need them, to be trained, you need them to understand and to be knowledgeable. So when my time comes to sit back and watch like so many of the other elders are doing, you have these people in place.
We have got to rear up and get these other individuals involved, which are of course our young people. You always must value the knowledge and wisdom of our elders. We are all human, we can get a big head because we've done something great or we can lose sight of really what we are moving towards. Respect, honor and perseverance these are the keys.