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Down the Powwow Highway in a '53

Facing a bleak outlook on mutual fund investments, she bought a 1953 Chevy pick-up.

“She’s been saving her winnings since she was 8 years old!” said Michael Roberts. Roberts, a fancy dancer, told me this will be his oldest daughter’s last summer with the family on the powwow trail. She will be attending college in the fall.

As the winter moons pass, powwow goers of all relations, and from all ends of the trail prepare for a new year.

Tanksi Clairmont will finish a Masters degree this spring. In addition to showing her fancy shawl moves, Clairmont uses a spreadsheet of powwow expenses to teach her daughter math. Clairmont’s records help decide which powwows her family will attend this upcoming season.

“I need records for my W-9’s; powwow Indians pay taxes.” Clairmont said.

“Since we're all gonna die this year, I’m thinking about starting a drum group.” said Tito Ybarra.

A self-proclaimed free-agent powwow singer, Ybarra moonlights as a comedian, and works days as a suicide prevention curriculum trainer. A clown in the arena, Ybarra used his years powwowing to help refine his act. However, his serious side became evident in his concern about how the economic recession has affected others traveling the powwow highway.

“I don’t knock it. I did it for years, but these days I worry about my people who make a living on the trail.” Ybarra said.

Michael Roberts hasn’t powwowed in Canada since before his oldest was born. The Roberts family own Nibble My Ears, a food vendor known on the powwow circuits. In addition, the family is invested in the green-industry company Mother Earth Eco-Remediation. To keep drumming up business, this summer the family will be driving in kilometers and spending Loonies on liters. Despite uncertainty over rising operating costs and foreign exchange rates, Roberts was confident about his daughter’s latest investment.

“That truck is like Indian land, they aren’t making them anymore.” Roberts said.

Darnell Baker works nights in the oil fields that recently boomed around his community. A grass dancer and recent college graduate, Baker talked about starting powwow clubs at each high school on his reservation, and how competitions could be held similar to programs in private schools. We spoke about how Tribal Colleges could create teams and teach students the history, culture, and business of powwow.

“Powwows need a points system like rodeos, and a professional league with championships hosted at different powwows each year.” Baker said.

Michael Roberts is a career powwower. Entrepreneur, singer, dancer, Roberts has performed on stage and acted on television. Roberts said he is more Choctaw than Chickasaw, but I assume his daughter bought a Chevy because Jeep only makes Cherokees. In the business of powwow, family is your brand.

Recently, Bunky Echohawk invited me to Nike Town for the release of the N7. The store was overcrowded with official-looking representatives in-town for “Important Indians of All Tribes” or something. I made my way through the federally-reserved gathering to the only place I was comfortable—the drum. Encircled were three generations of singers, each dressed head-to-toe in traditional N7 regalia. Over the rhythm of the beat, I heard an emcee voice in my head.

“Everyone please rise, it’s grand entry time at the Corporate America Arena, Black Lodge take it away!”

I always thought Red Bull would be the first corporate-sponsored drum group, or that Midnite Express would sign with a shipping company. I imagined fiber-optic fancy dancers with spinning logos on their arm bustles, grass dancers looking like fully-beaded NASCAR drivers, and a “World’s Most Traditional Dancer” reality show. I pictured powwow labor unions run by casino mafia Indians with IHS healthcare benefits for wounded egos, and BIA retirement packages that include ruffled legal feathers as giveaways. I knew it was another trick song.

“After these messages, we’ll be back with more from Black Lodge!”

Powwows are like old trucks, like one-eye Fords, like '53 Chevy pick-ups. The best come custom or original, some run right every time, others need to tune-up their played-out Injun. Like classic trucks, powwows will gain interest and value, if we invest.

In a rust-blue Chevy, from a window that wouldn’t roll down, Grandpa showed me where he danced as a little boy. He was the first to dance me around that same circle.

The thing about Skins is we do everything in a circle. No matter how fast powwow spins off beat, no matter if the economy ducks and dives, no matter what new trick songs sneak-up on us, each year we will return with our families to celebrate this circle of life through a tradition of song and dance.

Facing a bleak outlook, she bought a '53.

Cetan Wanbli Williams is a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe. He will be a regular contributor to The Thing About Skins and his email is