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Humble Beginnings to Big Winnings at Denver March Pow Wow

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Pow wow competitions, especially at the big events, draw a lot of revenue to their respective locations as well as cash prizes to the competitors who make it into the top five. This year's Denver March Pow Wow, starting on March 18 at the Denver Coliseum, has a total prize fund of $20,450, but Grace B. Gillete, the Executive Director of the event, explained that this total is almost always far less then what ends up being distributed during the event.

"The prize money listed is the minimum each category receives. Last year the Teen categories received double what's listed and the Junior categories received six times the amount that was originally listed. Several of the adult categories received more than listed. It all depends on how many sponsors we get for each category, and we keep fundraising right up to the start of the pow wow."

Between the revenue from ticket sales, vendors, parking permits, photography permits, accommodations, and advertising opportunities that are generated from the estimated 50,000 attendees the event brings in each year, the Denver March Pow Wow is indisputably a big business. But the business side of things comes secondary to the spirit behind this annual gathering, which began on a much smaller scale and with a very clear, altruistic focus.

"The pow wow began as the 'Youth Enrichment Pow wow'. Youth Enrichment was a program created by the Denver Native Americans United (former name of the Denver Indian Center)," Gillete told us. "The focus of the program was to teach our youth to dance, sing, and make their dancing clothes and beadwork. They would raise money to travel to two pow wows each summer. Finally, Denver Native Americans United decided to hold their own pow wow in March." And thus, one of the country's premiere pow wow events was born.

This year's categories include 16 adult competitions, from Women's Jingle Dress and Northern Buckskin to Men's Southern Straight and Men's Grass Dance. The ages of the adult competitors ranges from 18 to 60 and over, and there is a minimum of $17,200 on the line for these dancers. Seven teen categories, from Teen Girls Northern and Southern Traditional to Teen Boy's fancy, promise a minimum of $2,800 to the 13 to 17-year olds competing. There are also dance categories for "Junior" (7 to 12-year olds) and Tiny Tot (6 and under), with more prize money available. This level of competition, and potential winnings, is a far cry from the small event that began this journey.

"Prize money has never been a priority for our participants," Gillette said, but she recognized it's usefulness for keeping people, especially young people, encouraged to keep dancing, keep competing, and in turn hopefully stay out of trouble. "To honor the original intent, the Denver March Pow Wow Committee is sponsoring a special contest this year, the Youth Enrichment for Traditional Young Women and Men, ages 15-24. We want to encourage the youth to keep dancing by offering this category and prize money larger than the advertised adult categories. So many teen dancers don't place in the adult categories and get discouraged and quit dancing. We believe that by having this special it will provide the young dancers a chance to show their stuff and give them confidence to continue. Next year we will feature the Jingle Dress and Grass in the Youth Enrichment Special."

And what about the drums at the Denver March, always a huge component of any pow wow? They do things a little differently on that front. "We don't invite drums because we have about twelve local drums that sing at our dances throughout the year. We don't want to offend them by inviting outside groups nor do we want to offend our visiting drum groups by giving preference to our local drums. The Denver March Powwow is probably the only large urban pow wow that has an open invitation to all drum groups. It gives the elders and young people a chance to take part in a large celebration along with drummers that are at their peak."

The Denver March has branched out beyond just dancing and drumming into special contests that encompass a quilt contest (judges rule on color, coordination, hand quilting, and on-point setting—this competition sounds hard) and Wicaglata (women singing behind the drum).

From a humble beginning to a 50,o00 + person event, with dozens of categories, tens of thousands in prize money, and big time sponsorships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the DoubleTree Hotel, the Denver March Pow Wow manages to retain its roots while forever forging ahead.