There’s a big family reunion coming this month, and you’re invited. Canceled for the last two years because, well, you know, the annual Prescott Powwow is coming back as a celebration of community and culture. The three-day gathering at Watson Lake Park will bring together long-separated family and friends to dance, sing, share and heal in a spirit of togetherness and fun.
Anticipating attendance of more than 3,000 people, organizers have been working for two years to prepare. Heading the committee is Manuel Lucero IV, director of Prescott’s Museum of Indigenous People, who is very excited about bringing Powwow back this year. But he admits some anxiety as well, with the continuing pandemic threat. “I'm kinda worried, what with Covid and all, and if the City starts to shut down, like they did last time after the County started shutting its buildings, it’s bye-bye Powwow.”
Taking care of one another comes first. “We look to the safety of our elders and the community at large” as the touchstone for preparations. The specter of grief lays heavy on Native American communities, and no one wants to risk more of it.
“The way the virus hit Indian country in particular was extremely hard. So we just didn't want to take any chances. After that (canceled) Powwow and into last year we lost two of our Gourd Society members, valuable people here at the museum, both Gourd Dancers and great men, and that was tough on all of us here.”
Powwow is always an important event on the annual calendar, but this year’s will be particularly meaningful. “For the Native community it’s actually coming out of the pandemic. It’s time for us to gather together and see old friends and share in our Indianness. People are really wanting that right now. From what I understand we are the first Powwow in Arizona.
Most folks have been having smaller events, like Gourd Dances and things, which are very by-invitation-only, family-style ceremonies. The Hopi and Dineh have both been holding their ceremonies, but in a much smaller way because of the pandemic. We just can't do that with a Powwow, there are just too many people. So everybody's excited about it.” “Once the drums get going, my anxiety level drops a whole lot. It’ll be good.”
What’s a Powwow?
As an educator and lifetime participant, Lucero is happy to explain. “‘Powwow’ is actually an Algonquin word that references a holy person, like a medicine man or traditional healer. This came about when early colonists came across a gathering when a medicine man was making a prayer, and asked ‘what is this?’ and the translator says, ‘powwow,’ and the colonists say, ‘okay, well this is a Powwow.’ As the English language spread across the continent, the rest of us indigenous people took that word to mean the gathering.
“Powwows themselves are a relatively contemporary thing, but we used to have gatherings like this all the time, where other tribes would come, and we’d celebrate and dance, stories are exchanged, dances are exchanged, medicine is exchanged, intermarriages, everything that human beings do; as far as being traditional like that, you bet. But Powwow as we know it today is a much more contemporary thing. Take the Grand Entry, for example, we actually got that from rodeo parades, it’s part of Western culture. Our Powwow, being a social gathering rather than a contest gathering, is more like those traditional gatherings than what you’ll usually get today.”
An important function of Powwow is the reinforcement of values and traditions that are easily obscured among the distractions of contemporary life. Lucero says that it has been central to bringing young people back to awareness of and pride in their culture. Reinforcing that idea is this year’s event theme, “Elders Embracing the Youth to Carry On the Traditions of Native Culture.”
“When I started dancing as a kid, I remember seeing a hoop dancer at a Powwow who was doing an exhibition special, and I remember my dad saying, ‘Hey, there’s not a lot of these guys left, sit down and watch this.’ Now, there’s a herd, it's a hoop-dance contest, and it’s going on. Is what we’re doing working? I think so.
“Kids often get caught up in what other kids are doing. So you’ve got these native kids and they’re running around, hats on sideways, pants sagging, and you say, ‘Hey, this isn’t the city, bro, go home, sit next to your grandma and help her make bread, or butcher a sheep. Or go hunting with your uncle and learn how to butcher that deer. Learn how to use the parts and pieces that come off that animal, not only to feed your belly, but to live your tradition.’ We’ve got a lot more going on than TV, boomboxes and lowrider cars. Usually they get it.”
The people are the easy part
I asked Lucero what’s different about organizing Powwow, relative to other large public events. “It’s the people,” he responded. “Powwow seems, to me, so in my element — I wouldn't call it second nature, I’d say it’s first nature — I know how it should flow, and so do all the people, all the dancers and drummers, we all know what to expect. Most of us have been doing this our whole lives.
“We have it pretty much down pat, and that makes it different from, say, the Contemporary Arts Festival that we do here. I think the sharing and educating people about contemporary Native culture is also different from just going to have fun. This is a gathering where there’s last year shared, there are tears shared, there are hugs, there’s food — oh God, the food! — I don’t care what culture you're from, food is where it’s at! You’ve got happy bellies, you’ve got happy people.”
It’s not a show
While encouraging everyone to come and participate, Lucero emphasizes that Powwow is fundamentally different from other kinds of events. “You are welcome, but this is for us. You’re at a Native gathering. This is not a show for your benefit.”
“The thing to remember is, ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ Don't go out there doing your own thing; do what you see other people doing when you’re in the dance arena. It isn’t about individualism, it’s about respect for one another and being together in that circle.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more you sit and listen, take it in, the better the experience you’ll have. “
“This event is specifically for sharing. During Powwow we have many of what we call ‘intertribals,’ where everyone from every tribe goes out and dances at the same time to the same song. The big drums are like a heartbeat, and they say that when you’re out there in that circle, listening to those drums, your heart starts to beat along with the rhythm. And when everybody is in it together, hearts all beating in rhythm with the heartbeat of Mother Earth, the drums, that’s a powerful thing too.
“‘Intertribal’ means everyone. All human beings are tribal people. If you look back far enough in your own heritage, whatever your background, you come from tribal people. The medicine wheel is red, yellow, black and white, just like us, so everybody belongs in that circle.”
Events are open to the public with no charge for admission. For up-to-date information on the event schedule, vendors, sponsors and Powwow etiquette, visit PrescottPowwow.org.
Photos courtesy Manuel Lucero.
News from the MIP
The Museum of Indigenous People is announcing the kickoff of a capital improvement campaign that will include replacement of the existing library and office building with a two-story, street-level structure. The roughly three-year, $4-million project will begin with stabilization and reinforcement of the museum's handbuilt stone structures from the 1930s, followed by demolition and excavation. The new building will house a welcome center, offices, library, lab and educational facilities, and gift shop, allowing for expansion of exhibit space in the historic buildings.
Museum staff are working on installation of a new permanent exhibit on Ice Age Arizona and the people who inhabited the region. Key exhibits include fossils of local megafauna including the Columbian mammoth, Clovis-culture hunting technology, and a life-sized 3D-scanned and -printed replica of a petroglyph prominently featuring a sabertooth cat.
Museum of Indigenous People 147 N Arizona St, Prescott museumofindigenouspeople.org