Skip to main content

San Manuel Pow Wow Has Huge Prize Money, Awesome Singers & Drums

Thousands of people from across North America descended upon the California State University San Bernardino campus to attend one of California’s most moneyed pow wows on October 10-12. Hosted by the affluent and famously charitable casino tribe, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ Annual Pow Wow hosted hundreds of dancers and more notably, several illustrious drums from throughout Indian Country.

Tribal member and pow wow booster George Murillo knows his tribe’s pow wow is like no other. “This has grown into something spectacular,” he told ICTMN. “We have visitors from all the nations, and I feel very proud of it; to have been raised on our reservation and to be able to share this with other tribes.”

There are a few things that distinguish the San Manuel Pow Wow. For one, everything was free and extremely Native-oriented, even more so than usual for a pow wow. The tribe only allowed Native artists as vendors. And perhaps more unusual for a dancer-driven event like a pow wow, the singers and drummers received first billing and top dollar.

Diego James Robles

Dancers, spectators and judges gather around the Black Lodge Singers, a Blackfoot family drum from White Swan, Wash., during the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ Annual Pow Wow, in California State University San Bernardino, on Oct. 11.

Pow wow organizer and tribal member Tommy Ramos said the pow wow did not start as a singer/drummer centric event. “It really wasn’t at first,” he said. “As things started to grow, we listened to a lot of our elders that came from that drumming side of the pow wow and that’s how we kinda arrived at this place.”

Ramos said that attendance for dancers was down this year, but didn’t despair because some of the causes were beyond the pow wow’s control. He estimated that there were between 200-300 dancers as of Saturday afternoon. “Some of the weather in some parts of the country has affected our numbers,” Ramos said referring to storm systems in some northern states.

But even with the lower than expected number of dancers, there was a feeling of pride amongst the pow wow organizers and staff: It was the strong singer/drummers turnout and the $250,000 in prize money handed out during the three-day celebration. The money came from an allotment the tribe sets aside every year just for the pow wow. “We like to give back to the Indian people directly,” Ramos said. “One of the big things that the tribe does is pay the taxes on all the [winnings]. Like our drum contest, it’s $20,000 for first place and they are going home with $20,000 in their pocket.”

Renowned drum from the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area, Midnite Express is highly sought-after for its diverse style. “We sing songs from all over the Midwest and The Plains,” Jay Dusty Bull told ICTMN. “We play Lakota, Chippewa, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Blackfeet, Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo and we can do it because we are a drum group with many different tribe members.”

The drum traveled 30 hours, some of them through inclement weather, for the glory of warm weather in October and a shot at $20,000 in first-place prize money. “If you have top prize money for dancing, and singers get the same amount of money, we feel the same amount of respect,” Dusty Bull said. “Dancers dance for four or five songs for good money,” he said. “For us, we have to sing for three days up to thirty songs for just a fraction of that money. But now, this pow wow here, is a singer’s pow wow.”

Encompassing a completely different approach, the Black Lodge Singers are a Blackfoot family drum from White Swan, Washington. “We are probably best known because we are a family drum with a core of brothers who sing,” group member Kenny Scabby Robe said. “We are a contemporary drum, but we do sing original songs because that is how we got started.”

The Black Lodge Singers made the trek down California’s Interstate-5 because they knew the competition would be well worth the effort and because the San Manuel Indians know how to treat drums. “Most of these pow wows are geared towards the dancers,” Robe said. “It’s pretty good here because they know without the singers there is really no pow wow.”

Diego James Robles

Spectators gather to watch grand entry during the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians’ Annual Pow Wow.

Pow wow organizer Tommy Ramos and his tribe were just happy to spread the love. “We were down for years and years and now that we’ve run into this big blessing that we have,” Ramos said referring to tribal gaming, “We just want to share it with all of the people.”