Holy and charged with emotion—dances for the departed, drum beats to ancient rhythms, regalia adorned with symbols of legends and deeds and faith—the pow-wow circle is tuned to solemnity, meaning, and reverence.
Then again, some of the time, not so much. Take this recent scene from the pow-wow put on each year by the Winnebago Tribe. In the circle, the emcee hands out event T-shirts to winners of the pow-wow 5K as he ribs a group of men setting up equipment for an upcoming drumming competition. He then offers sagely advice: “Let those drum heads sit out in the sun for a bit. Loosen up the leather.” Outside the ring, kids and parents gobble up “Rez Dogs” with buns made of fry bread. South of the ring beneath a stand of mammoth cottonwoods artisans from around the country sell their wares. A group of softball players return to the park from a pow-wow tournament game.
Along with the sacred comes this vibe of the county fair. Fun, loose, festive. Increasingly, a real crowd-pleaser atmosphere for America’s native peoples and non-natives alike.
In the last few decades, Rich Barea of Omaha, a member of the Omaha Tribe, has watched the evolution of the pow-wow from mostly small, close-knit, amateur events into major festivals with big-name music groups and comedians, high-dollar dance competitions, and sometimes massive invasions by anyone with anything vaguely Native American to sell.
“For the most part, this incredible growth has been wonderful and exciting,” says Barea, who, now retired from his job with the City of Omaha, has time to travel the country dancing pow-wows from Oklahoma to Canada. “But, sure, some of the original meaning can get lost in all the hoopla and commercialism. The organizers of the best events know how to maintain that all-important balance.”
Barea, 66, hit several of the major competitive pow-wows this summer. He made a little money with his traditional dancing in the seniors division. Prize money might cover expenses. Money isn’t the point.
The long road of the summer pow-wow season comes to an end September 13 at the Fort Omaha Intertribal Powwow, which Barea has helped organize since its inception 23 years ago. Besides more than 200 dancers, the pow-wow at the Fort Omaha Campus of Metro Community College will feature a series of discussions and classes on pow-wow and Native American history topics.
The Fort Omaha event is, according to Barea and its lead organizer, Barbara Velazquez, more of a low-key, traditional event focused more on fellowship than competition. “It’s more like family reunion than some giant fair,” Velazquez says. “It’s a comfortable get-together of many tribes and anyone who would like to take in the pow-wow experience.” “It’s a wind-down to the season,” Barea says. “It’s a chance to see a lot of old friends in the region.”
The Omaha pow-wow also is, increasingly, an anomaly. It is a relative unknown on the national pow-wow circuit, on which the country’s top dancers, announcers, and performers tour followed by an entourage of vendors. Top emcees easily command $15,000 for a weekend job. The Winnebago event offered $60,000 in prize money.
In this environment, traveling food vendors and artisans can make a respectable living from a three-or-four month tour of America’s Indian Country. More and more families, particularly from tribes with deep artistic traditions, make a living on the road selling their work.
Between 11 a.m. and noon on Saturday of the Winnebago event, Craig Charles, a traditional Navaho metal artist, sold $300 in rings, bracelets, earrings, and other small goods from a booth beneath the cottonwoods. Most of the most intricate copper, bronze, and silver items—many inlayed with turquoise—were actually made by his uncle, Archie Teller, he admits. “He’s the master,” Charles says. “Well known throughout Navaho country. I’m not to his level yet. Mainly, I’m the guy who goes on the road and sells, sells, sells for the family.”
Charles lives east of Flagstaff, Ariz., on the western edge of the vast Navaho Reservation. The life of a Navaho artist can be hard for even the most skilled. “The scene of the guy sitting out in a tiny shack along some desolate road in the middle of the desert still exists,” Charles says. “My uncle lived that life. This is different. The big pow-wows basically bring a better life for us.
“Look around here,” he says, pointing to the bustle of the pow-wow. “Compare this to being in a shack in 110-degree heat with two cars coming by in a day. You meet people all day, see beautiful things all day. It can be a real joy.”
Charles, 47, says that most of the Navaho artists he knows weren’t traveling 20 years ago. Slowly, more and more have hit the road, particularly as the summer pow-wow circuit in the north and the winter pow-wow circuit across the southern United States have grown. Charles, his son, and various other extended family members now typically hit 16 or so events a year. Not only does the tour pay the bills, he says, it has helped lure younger tribe members to take up traditional arts.
And, increasingly, he says, Navaho, including his son, are now dancing in many of the events. “He has made his regalia, he practices, he’s pretty darn good now,” Charles says. “The funny thing: He even trains some for his dancing. He runs. Some of these dances are like a basketball game’s worth of exercise. It’s serious stuff if you take it seriously.”
Barea, well-known to Omaha theatergoers as, he says, “the guy that gets asked to play the Native American character,” makes his own regalia. He does his own bead work. He makes his own moccasins. He particularly enjoys making his own war clubs. He makes small ones for his grandkids. He makes a few “very whimsical ones,” too, including one of his favorites, “the mad chicken club.”
Do the math here: Rich Barea’s heavily beaded moose-hide vest alone weighs 13 pounds. He often carries one of his handmade war clubs or war shields into the circle. Combined with the beads, bones, and leather of his other regalia, Barea often hauls 40 extra pounds when he’s dancing. (He notes that some of the top dancers use plastic bone and other light-weight options to keep the weight down on their regalia).
He might participate in 60 dances in a long weekend. Some of those dances can last more than a half hour, such as a recent one that ran to 40 minutes “because the emcee just kept on talking and talking during the dance,” he says. “They can be quite long-winded,” he jokes. In the summer, temperatures can approach 100 degrees. The humidity can drive heat indexes up to 110 degrees. Add all this up: “I’ve lost 22 pounds,” he says. “It’s a sport. Depending on the style of the dance, it can be a serious sport.”
Indeed, dancing and drumming can play a very similar role in a young person’s life as organized sports, says Barea, who has coached Omaha youth teams for decades, including an all-Native American baseball team for 16 years. You learn to work with others. You learn to work toward a goal. You learn a skill, and more important, you learn how to learn a skill. The list goes on, he says.
Of course, learning the tribal dances and rhythms can mean much more than some recreational sport for young Native Americans. “This connects us to who we are and where we’ve been as a people.”
Barea says he hopes to have 13 of his 60 grandchildren participating in the Fort Omaha event (he and his wife, now deceased, took in many other children over the years in addition to their five birth children). With so much family there, with so many friends from the Omaha area, with so many tribal members coming from Midwestern tribes, many of which are close cousins to the Omaha Tribe, Barea says the event will be “a real homecoming and reunion for so many of us. I’m always excited as the pow-wow gets closer.”
And like always, he says, the pow wow will be laid back and fun, but also, at its core, filled with meaning. Barea has dance steps that are homages to friends and fellow dancers who have died. He also dances in tribute to his wife, his son, and other family members who have passed away. “You dance for the people who aren’t there. You dance for those who can’t dance.
“I don’t see any time when the tradition and meaning and the passing on of tradition will get overrun by all the growth and commercialism,” he says. “It’s too important to too many tribes and their people. I think people will always find a way to maintain a balance between the festive and the sacred.”