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Talking With Denver March Powwow MC Lawrence Baker

Forty-three-year-old Lawrence Baker, a widely respected master of ceremonies, said that his role at the mike of the big pow wows is to acknowledge both the similarities and the differences of the people there—what he calls “bridging the gap and trying to touch everybody.” It is an honor, he said, to emcee at the Denver March Powwow each year, which unofficially kicks off the 2011 pow wow season on March 18 at the Denver Coliseum.

Baker, who lives in North Dakota, emcees for pow wows and Native festivals as far north as Manitoba, where the hosts are the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, and as far south as Florida, where he does the honors for the Seminole Tribe. He is an enrolled member of the Mandan and Hidatsa Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota and the grandson of the Denver March Powwow’s first announcer, Paige Baker Sr., who encouraged Lawrence to find his own voice.

What does it take to be the voice of such a huge celebration, to keep 50,000 people informed and entertained? It helps if you’ve got a knack for public speaking, and Baker says a sense of humor is essential. Here are his thoughts and stories about life behind the mike and in front of the crowds.

The importance of bragging for others

“The main reason we have MCs, or
Eyapahas, is that it’s not right to brag and list the many deeds one has accomplished,” Baker said, “so you have to have somebody up there to talk about you. Hopefully that person either knows you or gets a vibe from you. That’s the personal side of announcing: I have to take care of the giveaways, memorials, honorings and special contests. All those people need somebody who will talk about them in a positive way and convey to the people what it is that they’re trying to do in the arena.”

The importance of laughing

“I like to joke and tease and bring humor into the arena. You’re in such a big venue, and you have non-Natives and Natives from many tribes, so I want to keep things humorous for everybody. At the bigger venues, it’s not necessarily all ceremonies, it’s a lot of different tribes getting together and celebrating the circle. The audience is having a good time, maybe learning, or taking something away that they never thought of before. I’m always trying to bridge the gap of similarities. Our struggles are the same struggles sometimes. There might be a Navajo couple and a Ho-Chunk couple sitting next to each other in their regalia, so I talk to them about what the pow wow means to them, why they traveled so far to get here. And sometimes we gather in joy and celebration with people we haven’t seen in a long time, and that’s enough.”

The youngest old man on the mike

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Baker started emceeing in 1995, when he was 27 and was put on the pow wow committee for the Little Shell Celebration in North Dakota. “I had always been a mimicker, so if I heard things, I mimicked them.”

If the pow wow announcer wasn’t around, Lawrence would get on the mike and start reading announcements. “I didn’t know I was doing this, but I was talking like an old, old man. I was making the announcements in what I thought to be a very good–sounding, deep, resonating voice. People would be bringing food and drink to me, saying, ‘There’s an old guy up there announcing, and he’s got to be hot and tired.’?”

“One of the things my grandpa always said is, ‘You were put here for a reason. If you find one thing you’re good at, you have found why you’re here. You touch a lot of people doing whatever it may be—if you’re in politics, if you’re dancing, if you’re singing. I am an announcer, but that’s not all I do. I realize this when people tell me after a pow wow, ‘You made me feel good.’?”

You have to listen if you want to talk

“In my professional opinion, he is the best announcer in the pow wow world today,” said Denver March Powwow Executive Director Grace B. Gillette of Baker. “One quality that makes him so special is that an announcer not only has to know how to speak, but how to listen. For giveaways, you can talk to him about the person you want to honor for just a few minutes. When the special starts and he begins to speak about the honoree, he eloquently relays the few bits of information given to him. He has announced for many family specials and always makes us cry. He is such an eloquent man; not many MCs have that gift.”

Baker recalls that when he was in his 30s, a highly respected Hidatsa clan aunt, Goldie Fox, asked him to announce for her. From his heart, he spoke of how she had been good and helpful to him as a child. “She put a war bonnet on me and said, ‘From now on, you’ll be known as an announcer for our people.’?”

There’s good even in the negatives

“It’s such an honor to do the Denver March Powwow,” he said. “We all congregate at this one spot—there are more than 100 tribes and more than 1,600 dancers. Then it flies by and it’s gone. Being in front of people, I’ve never had a problem with that. I don’t ever prepare a list of things to say, but there are times when I’m hitting all the right notes and I think, Holy smokes, I really connected there; the whole arena feels alive! That’s the most wonderful thing. But I do hear negative comments. And I really appreciate them. The negative helps you grow. Either way, positive or negative, you moved somebody.”