Spring comes to the Sonoran desert country of the Southwest much earlier than other parts of the country that are still fighting gusty winds and chilly temperatures. On the Tohono O’odham Reservation outside Tucson, Arizona, the major battle at spring pow wow time involves patience because of long lines at the bottled water vendors and the Sno Cone carts.
Despite being scheduled the same weekend as an annual Festival of Books on the University of Arizona campus — an event that this year drew a 2-day crowd of 100,000 book lovers — pow wow participants also numbered in the thousands as they turned out for the 30th annual Wa:k Pow Wow (March 10-11).
“We always have our pow wow the second weekend in March — no matter what else is going on,” says tribal member and Wa:k Pow Wow Chairman Philbert Bailey. “We looked at a lot of other pow wows in the West over the past three decades to see how they were being conducted and then we incorporated what we thought were the best ideas into our own gathering which now offers a combination of pageantry, fun and lots of dance competition.”
Begun in 1982 as a small social pow wow to benefit tribal fees committees, the event kept growing in popularity with both participants and spectators and is now publicized as “Tucson’s largest gathering of American Indians.” Contemporary festivities begin with cultural dances leading to traditional gourd dancing that gives way to an impressive Grand Entry that ultimately leads to competition in team dancing, hoop dancing, two-step dancing, owl dancing, inter-tribal dancing, and a drum contest .
The list of dance options is fairly extensive — Northern and Southern contests for everyone from Tiny Tots to Junior Boys and Girls (everything from grass and fancy to jingle and fancy shawl as well as traditional) to teen boys and girls competition, and women’s and men’s events that also include Golden Age competition for both genders.
“Our pow wow is well attended by Native Americans who live nearby and like to compete and it also functions as a learning event for non-natives to visit to find out a bit more about who we are,” says Bailey.
The sponsoring Tohono O’odham tribe, once a semi-nomadic people culturally related to the Akimel O’odham, inhabit miles of desert landscape spread out in non-contiguous segments that total more than 2.8 million acres. The 28,000 enrolled members live in 11 individually-governed districts with the pow wow presenters representing the San Xavier District — in fact, the dancing and drumming takes place in the shadow of the historic Mission San Xavier Del Bac, “The White Dove of the Desert.”
A myriad assortment of food booths stand between the parking lot and the mission’s pow wow grounds and the sights and smells of mesquite fires cooking Indian tacos, red and green chili burros, and several versions of fry bread are hard to pass by. And that’s OK with the sponsors because dollars raised from parking fees, admission prices, and concession stands go back to the San Xavier Community to support district projects and events like the Feasts of Saint Frances and Saint Mary’s, the San Xavier Mission school, school parks and pre-school programs.
More food and drink options exist inside the entry gates as well as vendors hawking handcrafted items involving beadwork, silversmithing, painted art, Native American tee shirts, and one of the most popular attractions for kids — face painting.
After everyone has been fed and is seated in bleachers surrounding the dance arena, the pageantry begins and extends into the night. “Our variety of dance contests offer monetary prizes for the top three winners in each category,” says Bailey, adding that dancers come from several states (AZ, NM, CA, OK, ND, and others) to offer their talents in an attempt to claim a prize.
Once the dancing dust has settled, the eight-member pow wow committee takes a break until September when they’ll start planning for an even bigger 2013th event — always held the second weekend in March.