By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Manuel Lucero IV, chairman of the Prescott Powwow, of the Cherokee Nation. The Prescott Powwow is Sept. 21-23 at Watson Lake Park, 3101 Watson Lake Park Road. Find out more at PrescottPowwow.Org.]
What is the Prescott Powwow?
A powwow is a gathering of native people. Most powwows, these days, are inter-tribal powwows with people coming from all over the continent to dance and pray and trade. These have been going on for hundreds of years. It’s usually in the summertime. It’s a time to see old friends, make new friends, meet relatives you never knew you had, trade, and, some times, marriages come out of the meetings. It’s about sharing with other people, about having a good time. We’ve been doing the Prescott Powwow for 12 years. Unlike some other powwows or social gatherings you may go to, there are no contests or money to be made. People come to our powwow because they love to do it. … The powwow usually starts with the grand entry, which is like a parade with all of the dancers from all over the different regions of this continent, which we call Turtle Island, which is North America. It goes into dance demonstrations of different styles from different regions, and from there, there are social dances as well, including ones the audience can actually participate in.
What groups are represented at the Prescott Powwow?
Last year we had folks from North and South Dakota, Washington state, Alaska, California, New Mexico, Arizona of course, Oklahoma, New York, Florida, Mexico, and some from Canada. … That’s a pretty big area. We’re in a modern age; we have trains, plains, and automobiles now. It’s 2018; we’re not on horseback or following buffalo across the open plains. Some groups spend their entire summers or even whole years on the powwow trail, going from area to area to city to city to participate in these kind of events.
What’s the importance of a powwow in the modern context?
They’re important because a majority of Native American people do not live on the reservation. This is a way for us to maintain our Indian-ness, to maintain our tradition and culture. In modern times, it’s also a way of sharing with outsiders, that is, non-native people. It’s a public event, and even though it’s still a native gathering it’s open to the public and you can even take pictures, though we do ask you get permission from the individual dancers or their families, especially when it comes to children.
This year’s theme is “Elders Embracing the Youth.” What’s the meaning there?
It’s so important that we teach our young ones about our traditions and ways of life, about our ceremonies and about our dances. If we don’t, they’ll go away and disappear. It’s important that we maintain these dances and ceremonies, that we teach them the different religious meanings. Every step is a prayer, and it’s very important that our children know that.
How do you balance that internal teaching role with that external ambassador role?
There are some things we are willing to share with the public and some things we aren’t. With the powwow, we have native people coming and enjoying these gatherings and we want to share as much as we can, but there are some things that are very sacred that we keep to ourselves and only pass on to our children. The balance is knowing what’s OK to share and what to keep to ourselves.
How has the Prescott Powwow changed over the years?
When it started we had maybe a dozen dancers and four members who were selling native arts and crafts, and we had one drum. This last year we had over 100 dancers and 11 drums. We had over 3,000 people who came as participants or observers. … I think it’s grown because folks are showing a bit more interest outside of the native community. You don’t have to travel to a reservation to see the Prescott Powwow because it’s right here. You don’t have to be specifically invited to witness these things; you’re free to come and enjoy it. All we charge is the $5 for Prescott parking.
What’s something from the past few powwows?
It’s always the drums and the emotions that come along with the dancing and singing. You may not understand the words to a song, but they always make you feel good. So much hard work goes into the the production of this single event, and once you hear those drums start up and those songs start up, you can’t help but smile and feel really good.
For someone who’s new to this, what’s the most important thing to see?
You definitely want to see the grand entry. The powwow itself is on what we call Indian Time, so things kind of happen when they’re supposed to happen, so it’s not like there’s a set schedule. … People often ask me if the dances are choreographed and, no, they’re not. We know the songs — they’re hundreds if not a thousand years old — so we know when to stop dancing, but that’s it. There’s pageantry and color and emotion, a unique, beautiful thing that happens when you get together dancers from all over. We’re usually joined by two or three eagles flying over the circle while we’re dancing. It happens every year without fail.
Could you explain some basic powwow etiquette?
There’s a lot of this info on our website, PrescottPowwow.Org, but sure. One of the cultural nuances is not to touch people’s regalia — their dance outfits. These are very, very sacred. Some of the pieces of them are hundreds of years old, passed down through families, and it costs up thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars to put them together. There’s sacredness to them, so please don’t touch. … Another thing is not to point with your fingers. Gesture with your eyes or by pursing your lips. Pointing is considered rude and, in some cases, is seen as though a witch may be trying to curse you. … We already covered photos. Ask for permission, especially with children. We also ask that you not use the images for personal profit. The outfits are our works of art. The dances are our works of art. They belong to us. Taking an image of that and profiting from it doesn’t bode well with the native community. … One last thing, pets. We do allow service animals, but we don’t allow pets. The reason is that most of us are wearing soft-sole moccasins and that doesn’t mix well with dog urine and dog waste. We’re outside and those animals go wherever they want. But, to us, we’re outside and it’s a sacred place, like church.
The Prescott Powwow is Sept. 21-23 at Watson Lake Park, 3101 Watson Lake Park Road. Find out more at PrescottPowwow.Org.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.