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In-line and On Time: Behind the Scenes at Denver March Powwow

For vendors, the mad rush to get through the doors of one of the most successful pow wows, the Denver March Powwow, began two months ago, and it sold out almost immediately.
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For vendors, the mad rush to get through the doors of one of the most successful pow wows, the Denver March Powwow, began two months ago, and it sold out almost immediately.

Up in Minnesota, educators at Vermillon Country Charter School were busy fundraising. Two months prior to the pow wow, Ryan Bajan, educator and special education coordinator, started a field trip funding campaign on so that students there can attend the pow wow.

The Denver March Powwow, March 20 to 22, to be held at the Denver Coliseum, in Colorado, is in its 41st year, and its drawing power to vendors, dancers, drum groups and the young generation never fails. In all, organizers expect an audience of 55,000, with over 95 tribes represented.

“The hardest part of the job is the way the pow wow should be run,” said Grace Gillette (Arikara), executive director of the pow wow. “We don’t have many changes in the programs from year to year.”

The success formula for the pow wow, Gillette said, can be credited to three major events: an arts and crafts show, with a limit on 175 vendor booths; a musical festival, with more than 40 drum groups and a dance competition, with 1,600 dancer-participants.

The multi-honored pow wow is a long way from its humble beginnings when it was a weekly event at the Denver Indian Center, and was called Youth Enrichment Powwow in 1974 and 1975.


Denver March Powwow

Fast-forward to today, and the youth are still very much involved in the pow wow. Bajan said this is the second year they have attended the event. “We are trying to include more students this year and each one participate in dancing. We have eight students attending, all Bois Forte Band of Chippewa members.”

The trip is the capstone project for their students’ school year, he said, adding that at their project-based learning school, students lead their own projects that achieve the credits they need to graduate and pursue post-secondary options. “We are committed to traditional education of the Anishinaabe nation, with an active youth-led Powwow Club. Our club participates in Ojibwemowin language study, traditional ceremony, wild ricing, hide tanning, and pow wowing,” said Bajan.

The goal is to attend eight pow wows throughout the year, while their school hosts a pow wow each year. “Our youth is learning hand drum and dance during club time as well as preparing for language competition in local quiz bowls.”

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As Denver March Powwow’s popularity soars, the organizers want to maintain its traditional roots and make it run as efficiently as possible. To accommodate people who can’t travel, organizers show the event online.

At the Coliseum, meanwhile, streamlining the event has not been an easy task, particularly when there is an “open invitation” for drum groups. A comfortable number for drum groups is 35, but last year, 43 came. “We hate to have to limit the groups. We can’t turn them away,” said Gillette. “If there are too many, they just have to be patient.”

That means that on Saturday of the three-day event, the Grand Entry ceremony could run for close to two hours, said Gillette.

Expect the arena to be packed by dancers who average about 1,200, as registered, but creep up to 1,600 during the ceremony. “A lot of dancers don’t register,” said Gillette.

Last year, dancers came from 37 states and five Canadian provinces. Gillette said that historically, drum groups come to render traditional songs and introduce new music.

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This year, dancers can compete in several categories, six for juniors, seven for teens and 32 for adults. The dances vary and include jingle, fancy, traditional, grass, northern straight, southern straight, buckskin, cloth and chicken.

Family sponsors add to the excitement, as they add more money to the pot. In all, the prize money could be anywhere from $55,000 to $60,000, said Gillette.

Keeping the participants in line and crowd entertained are staff members: Leo “Chico” Her Many Horses (Oglala Sioux), arena director; Lawrence Baker (Mandan and Hidatsa) and Chris Eagle Hawk (Oglala Lakota) as emcees; Whitney Topsky (Chippewa-Cree), Head Northern Judge; and JoNeda Weryawah Sage (Comanche) as Head Southern Judge.

Other attractions are the tribal storytelling, contemporary hip-hop presentations that empower the youth and educate listeners with a message of hope through culture and music, and the coronation of the year’s Denver March Powwow Princess.

Meanwhile, Bajan hopes to avoid making a mad dash to the finish in order to get his students to one of the biggest pow wows of 2015. They need $3,000 for the trip, and were halfway there in mid-February. “Our club is very excited,” he said.