Having a ball!

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WASHINGTON – No one knows for certain whether President Barack Obama will show up for the 11th official American Indian Inaugural Ball, but planners said in the days leading up to the big event that they were ready and willing for him to make an appearance.

“We’d love to see him show up at the door,” said Nedra Darling, one of the many Washington-based coordinators of the event. “We can’t say it’s going to happen, but we’d sure like for it to.”

Of the dozens of galas and parties held in Washington to celebrate the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, there are only 10 official balls, which are planned by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

All of those balls are scheduled to happen on the evening of Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, and they are the only ones at which Obama, his wife, Michelle, and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, are guaranteed to attend.

Obama inaugural officials could not say as of press time whether the president had made any plans to make an appearance at the Indian ball. They also could not say whether any Native transition team members, including Wizipan Garriott, Obama’s widely-heralded First Americans Public Liaison, would be able to make it to the event.

Despite the lack of a guarantee, organizers of the Indian ball said they are holding out hope that either the president or other top administration surrogates will be able to break away from official ceremonies to party with Native constituents on the same evening. Past presidents, they said, have left official balls to attend other inaugural celebrations.

The Indian ball is scheduled to be held at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City at Reagan National Airport. The facility is located in Arlington, Va. just across the Potomac from the heart of Capital City. Pre-tickets for the gala were $110 online, while on-site tickets are $150.

If Obama cannot make it, some are hopeful that another top guest like Tom Daschle, a longtime friend to Indian country, who is Obama’s choice to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, might show up to highlight the president’s much-talked-about goal of enhancing federal relations with American Indians.

All attendees, whether top administration officials or not, will be greeted by the fruits of months of planning, said organizers.

Darling said entertainment has been a key focus for planners, noting that a special stage is being set up to feature all the Native entertainers who are on board to perform. Performers who have been announced on the ball’s Web site include Joanne Shenandoah, Jana, Bill Miller, Michael Bucher and the group Phoenix. Special surprises, including, a new album release, are expected from some of the entertainers.

Organizers have been especially grateful to the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has played a substantial role in bringing world-class entertainment offerings to the gala.

Tina Osceola, a coordinator with the tribe, has worked overtime to bring in many more popular music acts and groups, including Jon Brandt, Martha Redbone, Gary Farmer, Keith Secola, Levi and the Plateros, Derek Miller, Casper, David Billy, Paula Bowers-Sanchez, Hank Nelson Jr., Hawk and Tori Osceola.

“We have been so lucky to have the Seminole Tribe’s assistance,” said Darling, who is a member of the Prairie Band of Potawatomi and of Cherokee descent. “They have brought together some of the most fantastic entertainers in Indian country. It’s just going to be a host of the best there is. They are premium all-stars.”

For attendees who prefer a calm setting beyond the live dance and music, an area with seating and a quieter atmosphere, is in the works.

The official host organization of the celebration is the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C. The group’s goal is to bring Native people together for social, spiritual and educational gatherings and to support young generations through an annual scholarship fund and seasonal family activities.

Michael Nephew, president of AIS, said hosting the 2009 American Indian Inaugural Ball is a way to help the organization achieve its goals. He said the money gathered from the event will partially benefit the initiatives and programs of the group, which is now in its fourth decade.

“This is a true community effort,” Nephew, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said of the Indian inaugural plans. “We could not have done this without the help of many of our Native friends living in the area and across the country.”

Many tribes and Native-focused groups have contributed financial sponsorships to help pull off the celebration. Top contributors included the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, all of which donated more than $10,000. The Puyallup Tribe of Indians and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community each donated $7,500.

Several other bronze sponsors, who contributed $5,000 each, and other sponsors can be found online at www.aiibdc.org/sponsors.htm.

Beyond financial contributions, several individual Indians, as well as members of the National Congress of American Indians and the National Indian Gaming Association have played important coordinating roles. Darling estimated between 60 and 70 volunteers will end up helping at the event.

Nephew said Billy Mills, the Oglala Lakota Olympic gold medal winner, is serving as honorary chair of the ball. Plus, two Lifetime Legacy awards will be presented at this year’s event. They will go to longtime Indian advocates LaDonna Harris and Mitchell Lester Bush Jr., both of whom are credited with pulling off the first American Indian ball in 1969.

“How lucky are we to have them here, keeping up their great work, 40 years after they started it all?” Nephew said of the honorees.

Harris, the Comanche president of the Americans for Indian Opportunity organization, has long been recognized as a national leader on Indian issues. Her husband is former Democratic Oklahoma Sen. Fred R. Harris. Many believe his supportive positions on Native issues were guided, at least partially, by his wife’s strong will.

Bush, a member of the Onondaga Nation, has held positions in the BIA, and has participated in the development of many Indian groups and publications over many decades.

Above and beyond the honoring, dancing and singing, the Indian gathering is also set to feature a unique pre-component that won’t likely be replicated at any other non-Native galas: a pow wow.

Darling said the pow wow, which will be held Jan. 19 at the same hotel the ball will take place, should be a highlight of the festivities.

“We expect it to be really special,” Darling said. “This is the first year that AIS has done the pow wow, and we are really excited.”

Many Native color guards will be flying in from across the country just to participate in the pow wow. Organizers said AIS didn’t have extra money to bring groups in, and a big sponsor was never found so many participants are making it to Washington out of their own pockets.

For partygoers who don’t get enough to eat at the ball and/or pow wow, yet another inaugural event, hosted by AIS, is scheduled for Jan. 21. There will be a morning brunch held at the same location as other events from 9 a.m. to noon that will give attendees a chance to share goodbyes, planners said.