Youth dances in pink Indigenous regalia with yellow, blue, and pink adornments

Native Communities Seek to Keep the Spirit of the Powwow Alive During the Pandemic

by Alexa Peters


Any Native American powwow performer, artisan, staffer, or organizer will tell you that a powwow — rich with intricately-beaded regalia, the dust of dancing moccasins, and the call and response of traditional songs — is a celebration of life itself; it’s a chance to honor the drum that beats in us all.

While nothing can stop the beat of this drum, the ways of celebration must adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects Native Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 23 selected states, the number of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among American Indian and Alaskan Native people “was 3.5 times that of non-Hispanic whites.”

Thus, in an effort to protect the Native American community, the elders of Washington’s tribes and the state government have been forced to shut down large competitive and traditional powwows as a matter of social distancing, leaving this important emblem of Native American community, cultural visibility, and in some cases, livelihood, on indefinite pause.

This is far from the first time the Native way of life has faced prolonged obstacles. In the name of “manifest destiny,” the U.S. government spent most of its first 200 years passing assimilationist policy designed to systematically strip Native Americans of their land and culture. It’s a legacy of oppression that continues to shape Native culture to this day.

“Music, song, and dance has been part of Native communities since time immemorial,” says Scott Pinkham, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and a lecturer in the University of Washington’s American Indian Studies Department. “Sometimes it’s used to commemorate an event, tell stories, and preserve and pass on the history of their nations. But what we know today as a powwow probably didn’t really get started until the 1880s, 1890s, and a lot of that was a result of United States policy [that] moved these tribes … as [the U.S. was] settling this nation and moving westward.”

Starting with the creation of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 by President Andrew Jackson, Native people were moved on to “Indian Territory.” At this point, the myriad American Indian tribes — each with their own distinct traditions, languages, songs, food, and stories — began to live together and exchange cultural practices. Powwows, originally, were a practice of the Plains tribes, but have evolved over time into the intertribal events we see today.

“The Plains-style powwow originated in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana area, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and then it started to grow and grow everywhere,” says Terrance Sabbas, a Native American Liaison in the Marysville School District and a powwow performer himself. “It’s really inclusive … We all meet up and celebrate life [with] singing and dancing, and then they started adding prize money.”

Along with working with Native students on their academics, Sabbas and his colleagues, including Matt Remle, Lead Native American Liaison for the Marysville School District, instigate cultural enrichment events, including an annual Christmas powwow at Marysville Pilchuck High School and a morning powwow four days a week at Totem Middle School. These events are meant to bolster a sense of belonging and pride in a population that makes up about 13% of the students in the district.

“When I first started, there was a shooting right in Marysville Pilchuck High School, and we lost some Native kids, and it hit pretty hard,” Sabbas says. “We wanted to uplift the community, and we wanted to put on a powwow. And the vision that me and Matt [Remle] kind of went with was to have that traditional foundation where everyone eats, everyone comes and enjoys some singing and dancing, and then all the kids, K–12, get a toy [from Toys for Tots].”

Amid the school closures brought on by COVID-19, last year’s Christmas powwow was cancelled. That said, Sabbas and Remle, who, along with the rest of the district staff, have been vaccinated through the Tulalip tribe, have continued to put on a masked, socially distanced powwow for the kids on the field at Totem Middle School four mornings a week, to promote community and well-being during social isolation.

“We’ve had 20 to 30 total kids and staff every morning and I use it as, you know, singing, dancing, but also encouragement because our kids are going through a lot,” says Sabbas. “It’s not just us as adults that are missing powwows, but the kids too. They’re missing their sports [and] just being together with their friends too, you know. That’s a big thing that can really weigh on their mental health and definitely affect their schooling. So I use it for encouragement, [to say] if you need help or support, reach out to us. We want them to communicate and have positive outlets for those different stressors or anxieties.”

Totem Middle School’s private morning powwow is something of an anomaly. Most local and national powwows have been cancelled or postponed without exception, like July’s iconic Seafair Powwow, which was cancelled in 2020 and is postponed in 2021.

Mike Tulee, Director of the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIAT), the foundation that puts on the Seafair Indian Days Powwow, asserts that along with bringing Native peoples together, the Seafair Indian Days Powwow’s mission is to foster the visibility of Indigenous groups in the larger Pacific Northwest area. Without the powwow, maintaining this cultural visibility is challenging.

“We don’t do it necessarily for the money, we just essentially want to do something for the community,” Tulee says. “There’s a lot of education that can be provided, a lot of cultural beauty that a lot of society doesn’t know. We comprise … probably barely 1% of [the] population of the United States, so in large part we are invisible. We feel this extreme sense of sadness [having to cancel the powwow]. We lose a lot of connection with our immediate society. Because generally, a lot of our programming that we do … is advertised through our powwows.”

For this reason, those with access to technology have tried to bring powwow traditions online. As soon into the pandemic as March 16, 2020, a Facebook page called Social Distance Powwow emerged, creating a place for community information to be shared and preserved, while also offering powwow performers a place to host videos of their dances, drumming, and songs, and a marketplace for powwow vendors to sell their goods. So far, the page has about 240,000 followers.

Social Distance Powwow co-founder Stephanie Herbert said in a press release that creating a virtually accessible powwow experience was important because of the communal and cultural aspects of the events, but also because “many vendors and pow wow coordinators were facing a lack of income for the year.”

Sure enough, as we enter spring, we enter the season of the competitive powwow, public celebrations that offer a source of livelihood to the best Native American powwow dancers, singers, drummers, artisans, and staffers in the country. It is not uncommon for some of the most skilled on the powwow circuit — also known as the powwow highway — to travel throughout the country for months at a time.

For the best performers, there is a living to be made from the prize money earned in the drum and dance contests, which are grouped by genre, age, and gender. Native American arts and crafts vendors can also make a living from the souvenir-seeking powwow attendees. Then there are the emcees, security guards, and other organizers that often occupy paid positions at these competitive events.

“Those that travel around competing, if they’re a dancer, they may travel around to different powwows, they’ll just refer to it as the powwow highway,” says Pinkham. “[They say,] ‘Ok, I’m hitting the powwow highway, to make the money that I need to support myself competing in these different dances or different competitions.’ Other people are traveling because they’re really sought-after staff members, like emcees.”

That said, with the mass cancellation of competitive powwows during the pandemic, this economic opportunity has evaporated for Native Americans, a group that already experienced some of the highest unemployment rates in the country pre-pandemic and a sharper rise in unemployment during the pandemic than any other group, according to a study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

John Romero is a Seattle-based member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, a Boeing retiree, and artisan who, in his retirement, has often traveled the powwow highway selling his custom-designed t-shirts, art, hand-crafted regalia, and more.

Over the years, Romero’s unique acrylic painting style — which riffs on traditional Native American motifs and includes nods to his personal artistic influences, like the comics of Mad Magazine — has garnered him enough of a reputation to keep him afloat during the pandemic. But he is quick to acknowledge that for many friends he’s traveled to the powwows with — be they dancers, drummers, singers, emcees, or vendors — this hasn’t been the case.

“I’m retired, I get a pension, I get social security, so I had money coming in … Where these [other] vendors, they needed to sell stuff for their livelihood,” says Romero. “There’s a big difference.  They have these big drum contests where the winners can get up to $5,000 for first place; second place is going to get $4,000. Dancers, same thing. You have different styles of dancing, different age classes, and the winners of each category are all paid too, even the teens, even the children [known as Tiny Tots], are given a token sum. The winners can get paid up to $800–$900 for first place, $500–$600 for second place, and so on and so forth. There’s not traveling going on, there’s no drum contests going on, none of that is happening now.”

The pandemic has created a similarly dismal situation for artisans who typically make and sell intricate dancing regalia, like colorful, fringed shawls and metal-adorned jingle dresses, plus other products like beaded jewelry, dream catchers, blankets, drums, and more. These pieces are time-consuming to make, and must be stockpiled before large powwows. As a result, vendors spend a large chunk of their money upfront on supplies and labor in anticipation of making the money back at an event, which is not possible right now.

One of Romero’s artisan friends makes traditional beaded earrings, for instance. “She’s got to go buy this stuff first out of her own pocket, spend the money, make the stuff, then sit there and hope she’s going to sell it and make up for the money that she spent,” Romero says.

Some Native artists have been able to keep themselves afloat due to the aid of organizations like Unkitawa, a Native-owned and Des Moines-based nonprofit that has given back to Native American arts and crafts vendors during the pandemic by providing them with materials and buying their creations in bulk so that the artisans can continue to support themselves.

Likewise, Folklife Festival, which is partnered with the Circle of Indigenous People’s Committee, a local collective that Romero is a part of, gave Native artists and vendors a platform during their 2020 virtual festival, and have plans to feature Indigenous arts once again in the forthcoming virtual 50th anniversary Folklife Festival happening in June.

What’s more, the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center has been putting on small, socially distanced, and masked pop-up events for local Native American artisans in order to offer them more opportunity to sell their wares during COVID-19. On April 10 and 11, Unkitawa and Romero will be involved with one such event at the Longhouse called “Duwamish Spring Fling Popup Native Market,” which is open to the public.

As for the rebirth of powwows, organizers are optimistic about Washington’s move into Phase III, but as of yet, none of the mainstay powwows in this area are occurring as usual this season. In North Dakota, Sabbas says he’s heard of powwow fliers being pinned up for the comeback of their local summer powwow.

While some may make the trek out to the few powwows that reopen this summer, Sabbas says he’s concerned that gathering together too soon may trigger a superspreader event. He says he would prefer to put safety first, particularly to protect the lives of elders. Organizers like Tulee feel the same way.

“Powwow, you know, we sure miss it,” said Sabbas. “But we stand [by] ceremonial teachings of patience and really know that going through this hard time will make a time when we can be together so much sweeter.”


Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @itsallwritebyme and her Instagram is @alexapeterswrites 

Featured Image: Circle of Indigenous Peoples Celebration at the Northwest Folklife Festival in 2019. Photo by Christopher Nelson, courtesy of Northwest Folklife.

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