by Vee Hua 華婷婷
The annual Seafair Indian Days Powwow returns July 15 to 17, celebrating its 33rd year at Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center’s Powwow Grounds in Discovery Park. This year’s powwow emerges from pandemic closures with the powerful theme of “Remember, Reconnect, Revive,” and is hosted by United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF). Open to Native and non-Native attendees, the Seafair Indian Days Powwow can draw about 12,000 visitors over the course of a weekend, and features a variety of competitive dance performances, food vendors, arts and crafts vendors, and networking opportunities.
“The people in this meeting area [are] saying that they really feel blessed; they look forward to this powwow every year, because it’s probably the largest Native event in the whole city,” shared Michael Tulee, executive director of UIATF and member of the Yakama Nation. He noted that the event held special significance this year since the last powwow was in 2019. “It reestablishes a lot of communication with each other that is not only for cultural value, but also for business reasons, so there’s various reasons why it’s really important for people — not only Native American, but for people in general — to come to an event like this. You see a lot of people you may have not seen in a while, and a lot of good things that can be forged in those instances.”
Alison Bremner, a Tlingit artist born and raised in Southeast Alaska, was selected as the artist for this year’s powwow poster artwork. Even though she has not attended this particular event because she is new to the region, she recognizes its importance. “We have a very similar gathering; it’s called Celebration in Juneau,” she said. “I know that gatherings like this — it’s just so important culturally; it’s so needed. Indigenous cultures are so community-oriented. It’s so social. We need these to re-establish our ties with each other, our history, and our ancestors.”
Bremner’s art runs concurrent to the powwow and show for two months at Daybreak Star’s Sacred Circle Gallery. Her poster artwork, an acrylic painting titled Raven as Bacchus I, was inspired by a piece by Italian painter Caravaggio. “About 10 years ago, I was in an art history class, and I learned about a piece called Bacchus by Caravaggio, and what really caught my attention was that the instructor said that this painting, of Bacchus, is one of the most-fainted-in-front-of paintings that exists. People will stand in front of this painting and they will pass out,” laughed Bremner. “I always thought that that power of making people so overwhelmed that they fainted, was something that Raven — a mythological trickster in Tlingit mythology … would have loved.”
“It is Raven as Bacchus, who was a god of excess and ecstasy, so it’s Raven in a toga, eating grapes,” continued Bremner. “I’m so delighted that it was selected to embody the joy of being able to have this powwow for the first time in years.”
The Seafair Indian Days Powwow is not the only powwow that was delayed due the pandemic. Albuquerque’s The Gathering of Nations — the largest in North America — opted for virtual gatherings in 2020 and 2021, returning in 2022 with a hybrid virtual and in-person model. The pandemic also resulted in the Facebook group Social Distance Powwow, which now boasts around 309,000 members from across the world.
Such innovation is natural; powwows have served as connective tissue for American Indian tribes, dating back to the mid-19th century. Their origins are a bit of a “mixed legacy,” according to Tulee, because a few major theories exist with regards to how powwows were formed and even where they got their name. What holds consistent is that modern powwows are intertribal events which vary in size but are celebrated throughout North America, representing dance, performance, ritual, and musical traditions from a number of tribal affiliations.
Locally, Tulee cited the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 and the Termination Era as some of the reasons that UIATF came to host powwows in the region today. Between 1953 and 1968, Natives were encouraged to leave their reservations and pursue economic opportunities in major urban centers. Some 109 tribes, primarily from the West Coast, saw their reservations close in that period — but once Native populations reached the cities, they found themselves struggling to adapt to city life, working low-paying jobs, suffering from racism, and being expected to assimilate.
“With that in mind, there were certain Native Americans who had seen this, but wanted to see, ‘How can we get some kind of camaraderie [in the cities]? How can we get Natives to start collecting? How do we support each other?’” Tulee said. “[The powwow] was just something that [UIATF] founder, Bernie Whitebear, felt very strongly that [Urban Indians] needed to get back to our strong cultural ways.”
Tulee shared that UIATF started their powwow in the ʼ80s, but built on earlier powwows which would draw 300 to 400 visitors apiece. Now, they rely on community members for historical context and guidance, including some who have been in the Seattle area since the ʼ50s due to the relocation programs.
“We rely a lot on their wisdom,” he said, “but because we’re in the Seattle area, we try to include other tribal representation … in some years, we’ll incorporate what is known as gourd dancing, which is down there in the Oklahoma area, or we’ll have Alaskan Native, or try to attract Coast Salish — which are not powwow tribes, but people who have their coastal way of providing cultural beauty and richness through dance and songs.”
This year’s Seafair Indian Days Powwow will begin with the Grand Entry on Friday evening at 7 p.m., where dancers who will compete in the powwow will be introduced via a special ceremony which includes song, prayer, and dance. Events will be emceed by Grant Timentwa of the Colville Confederated Tribes and Ross Braine of the Apśaalooke (Crow) Tribe, and competitive dance performances will take place throughout the weekend, with cash prizes and representation across a broad range of age, gender, and dance category.
Many of the dances have stories and symbolism associated with them. One such popular dance is the Grass Dance, which originated in the Northern Plains. Indian Country Today writes that the “spiritual, practical, and legend-oriented explanations of grass dance abound. The dominant legend is that a Northern Plains boy, born handicapped yet yearning to dance, was told by his medicine man to seek inspiration in the prairie. Upon doing so, the boy had a vision of himself dancing in the style of the swaying grasses; he returned to his village, shared his vision, and eventually was given back the use of his legs through the first-ever grass dance.”
The dance has become notably intertribal, with variations existing among tribes and dancers, but its general feel remains consistent. “When you look at people grass dancing, they actually look like blades of grass,” Tulee explained “With the way [they have] fringes on their attire, they kind of glide with the wind when they’re dancing on the dance floor.”
United Indians of All Tribes Foundation (UIATF) is a nonprofit that was founded in 1970, when a group of Native activists came together to occupy the land known then as Fort Lawton, within Discovery Park. With a budget of around $10 million, UIATF provides an extensive array of culturally responsive services and programming to King County’s urban Native communities. Their offerings include homeless prevention programs for youth and adults, preschool for Native and non-Native children, elder nutrition programs, and their recently-launched Daybreak Star Radio, which features Native and Indigenous music from around the world.
“I think people will find that Native people have a lot to offer our societies. I think you’ll find that the emcees have a lot of — not only good humor, but also a lot of great educational snippets that they can provide to the common folk who may not know what powwows are,” Tulee continued. “We just want to make sure that people really have an understanding of what kinds of foods we eat, what kind of songs we dance to, how people interact with one another, and just the community [in its] array of colors. In a sense, it’s ceremonial, but it’s open to anybody.”
Bremner’s playful and disarming artwork can serve as an welcoming entry point as well. “In my art, I’ve been conscious in my art to use humor as a bridge, and as a gateway in, to draw in people who may not be familiar with Indigneous cultures,” said Bremner. “[I use] humor as a commonality and to build that common ground, and I find that if I can make people laugh, they’ll be a little bit more open to deeper learning.”
The 2022 Seafair Indian Days Powwow will be hosted at Daybreak Star Cultural Center in Discovery Park. Admission is free on Friday evening and just $10 for all-day admission on Saturday or Sunday. The event is held rain or shine, so come prepared for whatever the weather might bring. Read more on the United Indians website or RSVP on their Facebook event page.
Vee Hua 華婷婷 (they/she) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. Much of their work unifies their metaphysical interests with their belief that art can positively transform the self and society. They are the interim managing editor of the South Seattle Emerald, editor-in-chief of REDEFINE, and co-chair of the Seattle Arts Commission. They also previously served as the executive director of the interdisciplinary community hub, Northwest Film Forum, where they played a key role in making the space more welcoming and accessible for diverse audiences. Their latest short film, Reckless Spirits, is a metaphysical, multilingual POC buddy comedy, and will be released in late 2022. Follow them at @hellomynameisvee or over at veehua.com
📸 Featured Image: Girl dancing the Jingle Dance at Seafair Indian Days Powwow. (Photo: Jack Storms)
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