Ask anyone who has attended a powwow and they will likely describe the amazing sights and sounds they witnessed. They might tell you how they heard drum beats that matched the rhythm of their hearts. Or that the skilled and graceful dancers wore beautiful and elaborate regalia (traditional clothing) crafted with vibrant colors as they circled the dance area.
Later this month, the Robbinsdale Area Schools community will have the opportunity to experience the majesty of a traditional powwow, thanks to the district's American Indian Education (AIE) program which is hosting an event later this month.
“There’s a misconception among people that if they're not Native American they can’t go to a powwow. But that’s not true – there’s a place for everyone,” said Athena Cloud, the district’s AIE program coordinator. “It’s a beautiful and unique experience, and I want to invite everyone who has an inkling of interest or curiosity to come and share in the experience with us.”
Co-hosted with Manidoo Ogitigaan – The Spirit’s Garden, the traditional powwow will be held from 1 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 23, at Armstrong High School. The Robbinsdale Area Schools powwow will feature singing and dancing, a community meal, information and vendor booths, and a celebration of Native American student graduates.
The event taking place at Armstrong is known as a traditional powwow, said AIE advisor Johnny Crow, as opposed to a competition powwow. Traditional powwows are centered around food and gathering and feature intertribal dances and music. Competition powwows don’t usually include a feast, and are meant to offer a chance for dancers to win money for their skills.
“Traditional powwows like the one we’re going to have are special,” said Crow. “It’s a really unique way to celebrate community and for people to connect with the Indian community and learn more about our culture and traditions. Our people – we want to humanize our traditions and culture and be more relatable, and a powwow like this is a great place for that.”
This hasn’t always been the case. Gatherings like powwows were illegal until the late 1930s because of government policies to isolate people and tribes, Crow said. Still, tribes continued to host powwows, and in 1978 the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to protect the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions.
The idea of powwows originated among the tribes that inhabited America’s Great Plains in the reservation era of the mid- to late-1800s. During that time many tribes formed intertribal alliances that allowed for tribe-specific songs, dances, and ceremonies to be exchanged. It’s why today’s powwows are intertribal events, Crow said.
With showcases of intertribal song and dance, powwows are also well known for their Grand Entries, which harken back to Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West shows in the late-1800s that featured a parade of Native Americans in full regalia from their tribe carrying flags, Crow said. “Those tribal members took that Grand Entry experience home with them, and they’re still featured prominently in today’s powwows.”
During a Grand Entry, everyone in attendance rises to their feet as a veteran color guard leads a parade of dancers into the arena. “It’s a beautiful sight,” Crow said.
For those unsure of etiquette for non-Indigeneous people attending, Cloud and Crow have created information for attendees, which will also be shared at the powwow (more information can be found at the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe website), but also emphasized that it’s truly a community event and that all are encouraged to attend and experience the event firsthand.
“Powwows are community gatherings. They’re a time for people to come together – near and far – to connect and enjoy one another’s company, share a meal, pass along knowledge, practice traditions, and share stories about what’s happened since the last time we met,” Crow said.
This year’s powwow will also feature a celebration recognizing the approximately 30 Native American seniors graduating from Robbinsdale Area Schools. The student celebration is set for 4 p.m.
“The education system, historically, wasn't really designed for Native people. The graduation of students is a big deal in the Native community,” said Cloud. “We want to show our students – our seniors – that the district and community are behind them. We want to recognize the students and validate them.”
Food and vendors
A traditional powwow wouldn’t be complete without a community meal, Crow said, and at this year’s event, Indian tacos from Powwow Grounds in South Minneapolis will be served. Other food and drink options will also be available.
The district’s American Indian Parent Advisory Committee will be offering information, and other local native organizations have also been invited, as well as vendors and artists featuring indigenous works.
Additional powwow details
Powwows typically have particular titles for the people or groups who lead the event. Arena director Randy Gresczyk will make sure the powwow’s dancers, singers and events run smoothly. Jerry Dearly will serve as event announcer in his role as master of ceremonies, providing history and entertainment and generally setting the atmosphere for the event. Lastly, music for dance and other activities is provided by Little Bear, which is serving as the host drum.
The powwow begins with Grand Entry at 1 p.m. Intertribal dancing and singing is scheduled for 1:45–2:30 p.m. Youth specials (singing and dancing, more information below) will be held from 2:30-3 p.m. The community meal will be held at 3 p.m. with a second Grand Entry to follow, and the student recognition ceremony will begin at 4 p.m. The powwow will end at 6 p.m.
This year’s powwow is offering stipends to the first five groups of drummers and singers who register to participate, and will feature youth specials, which is the powwow term for the youth dancing and singing competition. Specials include payouts to the top performers:
- 17 and under girls any style: first, $150; second, $100; third, $50
- 17 and under boys any style: first, $150; second, $100; third, $50
- Men's & Women’s Side Step: first, $200; second, $150; third, $100
This is an alcohol and drug-free event. A no-tolerance policy will be strictly enforced.
Interested vendors can register to participate at: https://bit.ly/37BvwRD
General questions about the powwow can be sent to Cloud at Athena_Cloud@rdale.org. Visit the district’s website for more information about the district’s American Indian Education program.