Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it wasn’t uncommon for Brody Screaming Eagle to attend several powwows a year. The powwow trail, which stretches across North America, meant he often saw friends from tribes far and wide nearly every weekend. The pandemic, however, changed that, forcing many organizers to postpone or cancel their events altogether.
While missing the community and the energy, Screaming Eagle, a Houstonian who is of Cherokee and Ojibwe descent, did the closest thing he could. Trying to replicate the experience, he put on powwow music at home, taking to his backyard or living room, and stomping his feet to the sounds of the recorded drums.
It didn’t compare, he said.
“When you have that drum, and you’re surrounded by dancers, it’s different,” Screaming Eagle said.
But when he stepped into the arena in Houston’s Traders Village, in his colorful regalia of feathers and ornate beadwork, Screaming Eagle finally felt what he had been missing for nearly two years: The smell of sage as an elder cleared the grounds. The group of men sitting in the center, beating the resounding drum. Reuniting with old friends.
“There it is,” he thought. “This is it.”
The powwow is a much-anticipated tradition, allowing people within the Native American community to convene and connect over dancing, music, Indigenous foods and spirituality.
For people who “only know of what they see in museums” or believe Native traditions are a thing of the past, the powwow is a chance to learn about the cultures of the many Indigenous tribes, said Nan Blassingame, 40, program director for the Great Promise for American Indians, a nonprofit that organizes the Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit many Native communities hard, has made these congregations difficult.
In Texas, several powwows — including the Austin powwow, the largest in Texas, and those typically hosted by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas — have been canceled in order to keep community members and tribal citizens safe. San Marcos’ Sacred Springs Powwow was held online, inviting dancers from tribes all over the country to compete virtually. Others have been postponed.
“We’re going stir crazy,” said Gene Randall, a San Marcos area resident who identifies as Apache. “We are very social creatures, and the COVID-19 pandemic put a big damper on social contact — especially for the elders, because we love coming to the powwows and sharing what we know.”
Many are confident, however, that the powwow scene is returning.
Austin is already planning its powwow for next November. The city of Cibolo will host a three-day powwow this year that honors the country’s veterans, featuring drum contests, and Houston held its 31st Annual Native American Championship Pow Wow earlier this month.
Though attendance dipped due to the pandemic, Houston’s outdoor event still welcomed thousands of spectators and dozens of dancers from tribes from Arizona, North Dakota, Montana, Oklahoma and Canada to participate in competitions, dance-offs, crafts and food from Indigenous vendors, said Harold Rogers, 52, a Dallas Navajo who has helped plan Houston’s powwow since 1998. According to Julio Orbe, Trader Village Houston’s marketing manager and special events director, the event was still the marketplace’s largest event of the year.
The powwow, itself, is a reclamation of culture and history — a healing experience and needed celebration, Blassingame said — after a long history of the U.S. “attempting to suppress and drown out” Native and Indigenous culture.
Such gatherings are of particular importance in recent months, Rogers said, as the public is learning about colonial efforts to get Native Americans to assimilate and conform, often to their detriment. Indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada have increasingly reported finding the remains of Native children who were forced into what many call “Indian schools,” federally operated or church-run boarding institutions created decades ago to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children.
“The U.S. has tried to stifle our Native people to not sing or dance,” said Rogers. “Kill the Indian and save the man” was the motto, he said, resulting in Native people being punished for speaking their tribal languages.
Still, many people have done their best to keep the culture alive, Rogers said, with powwows serving as a prime avenue for people looking to get back to their roots.
Growing up in the 1950s, Randall did not identify as Indigenous. It was an act of survival, he said.
“It was better and a lot safer to be Mexican than to be labeled Indigenous. … I don’t know anyone who would have identified as Native American,” said Randall, who is 68. “It’s not something we talked about.”
In other cases, many people who were Mexican American didn’t learn about their Indigenous roots until later in life — a common tale for many Mexican Indigenous residents throughout the state, he said. Randall, who learned about his grandmother’s Indigenous roots as an adult, said he attended his first powwow in his 30s.
“It felt like I was supposed to be there,” he said.
“A lot of people like me didn’t grow up in the traditions, but as we’ve gotten older, this is what we’ve chosen to do,” said Randall. “It’s helping people realize who they really are.”
Screaming Eagle, too, first connected with his identity at a powwow.
His parents, a White couple who adopted him when as a young boy, brought him at the age of 10.
“They were told to do what they could to keep my culture alive,” said Screaming Eagle, 35. “They got me out here to meet different people, to talk about what we do. There was a lot of practice, and a lot handed down to me.”
Now, Screaming Eagle, who practices the chicken prairie dance — an aggressive, fast-paced dance traditionally used to attract a life partner — attends powwows with his wife and daughter Tahlua, 14, who recently won fourth place in the women’s dance category.
The powwow is deeply rooted in celebration.
“To me, it’s a family reunion. You might find your lifelong friend there. People call each other brothers,” said Blassingame, who traveled from Austin.
“And you have to look your best, head-to-toe,” said Blassingame, who designs traditional wear for dancers.
At the Houston gathering, dancers of all ages and tribes were divided into different categories, based on dance style and gender, and they competed to display their footwork with vibrant traditional wear, ornamented with geometric shapes, symbols, floral designs, and silver cones and bells for sound effects. While some powwows are competitive with cash prizes, others are hosted just for the community to convene, break bread and dance together in preparation for a new season, Rogers said.
It’s like church, Randall said, a place where people can reconnect with their spirituality and time their movement to the drum.
Many would be lost without the drumbeat. “We would have nothing to dance to,” Blassingame said.
Elders serve as the gateway to tribal history, and youth, as the future.
“It’s my culture, and it’s very important to keep it going,” said Dakota Osife, 15, her hair plaited into two neat braids, the silver cones on her red jingle dress tinkling as she walked. The story goes that her dress was created by an Ojibwe medicine man who had a vision that it could cure his sick daughter.
Dakota, who has been attending powwows since she was a baby, said the dancing and movement came back to her with ease.
“It’s a spiritual kind of thing,” she said.
This story was published via AP Storyshare