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Modern Powwows

At hundreds of gatherings, Indians celebrate their heritage and deal with current concerns like drug and alcohol abuse

AMERICAN Indians from 69 tribes gathered here at the 8,100-seat Denver Coliseum several weeks ago for a powwow that, like the hundreds of others taking place each year, was part dance contest, part arts-and-crafts fair, part social gathering. Intertribal solidarity and individual tribal heritage met on the dance floor, nurturing Indian youth and sustaining Indian age.

Urban powwows have taken on increasing significance as more Indians have left their homelands to live in cities. But wherever powwows take place, warriors still dance their war and victory dances - commemorating service in the US armed forces, the survival of tribal identity, and personal achievements in a complex and often hostile world.

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For some Indians, the war dances have taken on new significance. Master-of-ceremonies Dale Old Horn stressed the battle to overcome alcohol and drug addiction.

Kay Culbertson, an Assiniboine Sioux staff member of the Denver Indian Center, explained, ``The victory dances honor all the veterans of war and all those [veterans] who died over the last year. But now we have other wars to fight, and we have to fight more insidious enemies - drug and alcohol abuse. In September there will be a sobriety powwow to honor those people in recovery and those who have never had the problem.''

The Denver Pow Wow in March, which included more than 700 dancers and 52 drum groups, has become one of the biggest annual Indian celebrations in the country. Traditionally, it opens the spring-summer powwow season, which ends with the spectacular United Tribes International Pow Wow in Bismarck, N.D., in early September.

Yet the Denver event started modestly 16 years ago, when John Emhoolah, a Kiowa, and Keith Fox, an Arikara, realized that young Indians growing up in the cities were not learning of their heritage and gaining the self-esteem which can come from tribal identity.

``When you have roots in the reservation and you move away to the city, you find out how important Indian identity is,'' said Phyllis Culbertson, an Assiniboine. ``Traditions are making a comeback with Indian kids living in cities.''

Then, too, Emhoolah pointed out, ``Denver has a lot of Indians, but we'd never had a big gathering of all the tribes.'' So the Denver event helped create and sustain community spirit.

``The number of powwows runs into the hundreds, and they go on almost year round,'' said John Compton, a Sioux director of social services at the Denver Indian Center. ``We're seeing more special-occasion powwows for marriages or other honored times. But the bigger ones coincide with the good weather. There's a dance for everything, but the main purpose, I think, is recreational and social.''

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KAY CULBERTSON says, ``To me, it's a time you see your friends and relatives from all over the country. It's a way to feel good about being Indian, because you are unique.''

Margaret Tyon, a Lakota and director of the senior-citizen program at the center, says she finds the powwow ``uplifting.'' She explains, ``There are maybe 26 tribes represented in Denver. It's a large community. Many people open their homes to friends and relatives from far away, because a lot of our people don't have the money [to cover hotel costs in addition to the trip]. But then they do the same for us. I love that renewal of relationships.''

In the coliseum, as I stood with Emhoolah watching 20 young girls performing the fancy-shawl dance, he told me, ``Every tribe has its own explanation of the meaning of the powwow.'' For him, it is a way of life, serving as he does in many capacities - including head dancer, judge, or master-of-ceremonies - in powwows all over the country. ``But in the old days it was often a religious ceremony. Powwows historically included more activities considered sacred. That's how the songs were made - to the Creator.''

The larger the crowd, the greater the excitement. A powwow official here estimated the weekend attendance at 30,000, half of whom were non-Indian spectators. By Saturday night, the second day of the March 16-18 event, spectators nearly filled the grandstands, while hundreds of others circled arts and crafts stalls in the outer halls. Jewelry, pottery, blankets, and clothing stalls stood beside information booths offering brochures on colleges, charities, and other organizations related to Indian life.

Accomplished Indian singers and drummers played ancient and modern songs for the dances on huge Indian drums. Most of the Denver drum groups appeared to number 5 to 10, around a single drum, but may number 20 to 30 at some powwows.

The songs, which are shaped by the strong beat of the drums, may last from 5 to 10 minutes. Some are hymns to the Creator that have been passed down for generations within a single family; some are so old no one knows when they were composed; some were written to honor a particular person; some were inspired by nature - ``when you hear a different sound in the wind,'' as Emhoola said. But all are based on ancient structures, which, Emhoola said, remain unadulterated by other cultural forms.

Today's gatherings are not essentially religious, but prayers are offered, blessing the dancers, musicians, spectators, and the entire event. When an eagle feather falls to the ground from a dancer's outfit, the dancing stops while the feather is retrieved and blessed by a veteran dancer or holy man, because the eagle is regarded as a symbol of the Great Spirit.

The traditional dancers wear buckskin or cloth, beads, and feathers. The so-called men's fancy dress consists of brightly colored feather bustles at the shoulder and the waist.

The grass dancers have long strands of yarn covering their outfits like so much meadow grass - with the added distinction of yarn's fabulously vivid hues.

Traditional women dancers wear buckskin or cloth dresses and a long-fringed shawl over one arm.

Jingle-dress dancing requires livelier jump steps from the women to keep the dozens of jingles (made from the tops of chewing-tobacco tins) tinkling rhythmically.

While the controlled elegance of the traditional dancers drew my admiration and appealed most to my imagination, it was the young women's fancy-shawl dance that I found the most vigorously expressive of the women's styles.

``The fancy-shawl dance came into being in the mid '50s, and it represented a change in our society - growth and development and the changing status of women,'' said Phyllis Culbertson, whose own daughter and granddaughters were dancing before us. The dancers wore long-fringed shawls over their shoulders and raised their arms like the wings of birds, first one side than another, as their feet moved in frenetic steps similar to a jig - all in precise time to the drum's variable tempos.

The intertribal dances entranced the viewers by the sheer number of pulsating figures, as hundreds from various tribes danced together in fellowship - each in his or her chosen style.

Dances seldom seen by non-Indians opened the doors of understanding between cultures. And the atmosphere was welcoming to all races.

``The spirit of the powwow is a continuum in Indian life,'' said Linda Yardley, a Taos Pueblo Indian and mother of Sage Yardley, the 1990 Denver March Pow Wow Princess. ``It isn't just for a few days during March. We live this spirit on a daily basis. It is why we have survived for so long. At one time we were a forgotten people, but I think we are getting stronger. From the powwow we gain strength as Indian people, individually and collectively, to go on into the 21st century.''

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