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Dancing into the future

Plans already under way for 2009 Denver March

DENVER - The big March pow wow held here annually may be over for 2008, but the work of 2009 is already under way.

Grace Gillette, Arikara and executive director of the Denver March Powwow (informally known as ''Denver March''), is busy tallying, recording and planning - generally carrying out the nuts and bolts of designing and executing a major yearly event.

Part of Gillette's post-pow wow job every year is to crunch numbers, send out vendor applications and begin the process of head staff selection for the next year, among countless other chores.

This year, there was good news and less-than-good news, the latter due to increased costs.

The 34th annual pow wow itself was a success, drawing 952 registered dancers, 1,742 dancers at the main grand entry, 34 drum groups, more than 185 arts and crafts booths, and participants and attendees from 25 countries and 49 states. Held in early spring, it is generally recognized as the kickoff event for the pow wow season nationally.

''People ask why it has been successful,'' she said, theorizing that the event may accommodate ''people who have cabin fever.''

But she fundamentally attributes the pow wow's success to the strong traditional and Christian practices of those on the five-member board of directors.

Of central importance is the Denver March's unique status as a major pow wow that avoids the lure of huge cash prizes, thereby playing down competitiveness, she said.

Adult first-prize money at Denver March is $400, while at some of the large pow wows held by casino tribes, adult first prizes may be $3,000, she said.

''A lot of people like to come to Denver March Powwow because they think it's the closest thing to a traditional pow wow that is a contest pow wow.''

In any case, the definition of what constitutes a traditional pow wow may be open to discussion.

For example, Mdewakanton Wacipi, the annual gathering at Flandreau, S.D., ''is always billed as a traditional, not contest, pow wow,'' she said; but drums are asked to register, dancers are placed in categories and people are paid small amounts according to age group.

She attended that gathering, where her granddaughter, Larissa No Braid, was Gordon Weston Lodge Princess, in July, just after traveling to the Arikara Celebration in White Shield, N.D., where another granddaughter, Lara Jewell No Braid, was traveling princess.

The pow wows follow an old tradition of exchanging goods for services in the northern Plains, she said, and the giving of cash prizes is compatible with that tradition.

The Denver March has also ''avoided advice from others to use special effects - spotlights, fog - that kind of thing.''

At the annual Red Earth Festival in Oklahoma, for example, a new grand entry was tried in which dancers lined up across the arena by dance category and then moved forward together across the dance circle as spotlights were turned on and machines emitted fog.

The cross-arena entry became disorganized, some of the Golden Age women had difficulty breathing because of the fog, and the overall effect was too commercial, she said.

At some places, there are sports events, art shows, other kinds of musical performances and other entertainment which, she said, are really festivals, not pow wows.

As is the case with many nonprofits, the pow wow always operates on a thin fiscal margin, she said, and is still reeling from the setback dealt by the March 2003 blizzard that kept many potential Denver attendees - critical to the pow wow's success - snowed in.

As a result, the pow wow committee looked last year at the possibility of a Thanksgiving pow wow and market at the National Western Events Center, which was a ''perfect setting''; but when it was carried out, there were essentially no shoppers and the pow wow proved to be a ''drain, rather than an asset,'' she said.

That particular drain could, in fact, become an asset for the city of Denver if some very preliminary thinking were to become reality.

To date, the pow wow has kept its head above water in spite of increasing expenses for coliseum rental - $4,500-plus daily this year - and the services of coliseum staff, she said.

But in 2003, 73 drum groups registered and ''we realized we had to do something, so a $100 drum registration fee was charged.'' With $50 day money, free pow wow passes and free parking, the drum groups were not penalized, they got to sing more often during the pow wow and the dance circle was more manageable, she said.

Although admission is charged, there are a lot of exceptions - over 60 and under 6 years of age, $10,000 in passes to nonprofits whose clients cannot afford to pay, and passes for Native students, student groups and others. ''If we charged everyone admission, we'd be OK,'' she said. ''Problem is, costs were substantially higher this year.''

Gillette first volunteered for Denver March in the 1970s and left for a while, but became convinced she should begin volunteering again when she learned someone on the pow wow committee at the time had been asked about pow wow songs and said, ''There's no meaning - it's just chanting.'' She went on to become pow wow board secretary, then co-chair with Ken LaDeaux, Sicangu/Oglala, of Rosebud, S.D., whose business acumen helped the organization, she said.

The pow wow receives support from Denver County Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and other contributors; and the arts and crafts booths rentals are another major source of revenue.

For 17 years, the pow wow committee functioned solely with the use of volunteers, and the resulting in-kind hours eventually made it possible to hire three staff. Denver March Powwow Inc. remains a federally registered nonprofit organization.

Corporate officers in addition to LeDeaux are Virginia Quintana, Hunkpapa, vice president, and Diane M. Buck, Assiniboine, secretary/treasurer. Committee chairs of the board of directors are LeDeaux, arts and crafts; Buck, contest; Quintana, feast/concession; Nancy Rouillard, Oglala, registration; and Virginia Irving, Oglala, sales.

Outgoing 2007 Denver March Powwow Princess Autumn Zotigh, Kiowa/Santee Dakota/Ohkay Owingeh, crowned the 2008 princess, Amanda Joy Ironstar, Nakota-Lakota from Oceanman First Nations in Saskatchewan, Canada, who resides in Anadarko, Okla.

The 2009 pow wow will be held March 20 - 22. For more information, visit http://denver marchpow wow.org.