By Darlene Dukelow-Burton
Two years without a powwow to a Native American means losing a great many things.
Reducing it to simply having no social contact is a severe understatement.
You might be closer if you describe their lives as dependent on a tribal structure and extended family-oriented groups. They rely on the tribal network to feed their existence and operate their personal lives.
Joshua Gonzales is the Native American Student Programs (NASP) director at the University of California, Riverside. His group usually puts on the complicated three-day powwow each year at the university. The Gonzales family has spent decades involved in UCR’s Native American activities, and they are of Xictlaka/Mexika Indian descent and have spent their lives in the United States.
The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown interrupted Native Americans’ lives across the country. When the quarantine was put in place, the powwows stopped everywhere. The UCR powwow would have been 39 years old in 2020.
Gonzales expressed frustration about the last two years but understands why it had to happen. He knew the dangers of such a highly communicable disease. Indian reservations suffered terribly from the contagion with a disproportionately higher number of deaths, as their people have shown to have far less medical infrastructure than others.
The significance of the powwows to the Native Americans is more than social. It is traditional.
It is where they show their children how to learn the ways and rules of behavior. It is where they discover their parents’ traditions and introduce them to their communities when they are officially brought into the dance circle for the first time. It is where they wear the regalia that their family hand-made for them and can feel the greatest pride in their heritage, finally understanding what it means.
Although the drums and dancers compete with one another in today’s powwows, it is done in good sport.
All of them feel the immense positive energy produced by every competition.
The powwows are a time when many prayers go up. Many of the songs that the drums play are prayers in a Native language. The prayer songs are why photography of the drummers and dancers are not allowed at certain times.
Many decades ago, a Lakota Sioux prayer surfaced at meetings, then it was said at some powwows. It took hold, and the English translation spread to all the Indian Nations. The traditional Mitakuye Oyasin life prayer means “All My Relations” or “We Are All Related.”
Other Indian nations have their versions of the prayer, and they connected with it.
The Native American communities that come together at the powwows feel that the staff, drums, dancers and vendors are the powwow family. They travel from area to area attending their favorite powwows, and they are friends of long-standing fellow competitors that can sometimes be seen as extended family.
Many different tribes from many other Nations attend these powwows. Although the people are from different tribes, they still feel interconnected despite all their differences. At the Powwows, they can come together at these great gatherings to be themselves and mend themselves.
The powwow energy feeds the soul and spirit. The drum groups that sing and play the songs lead the way for the community to dance in the dance circle.
Many outsiders don’t know that much of this is religious and is done in a ceremonious way. It must be performed precisely right to have the correct meaning.