The Business of Powwow

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On a manicured, level stretch of soccer field, the drum beat begins. The eagle staff begins the procession, followed by the universal flag of American Indians,next comes the American flag, California flag, three Armed Services flags and a Prisoners Of War/Missing In Action flag. The dancers come next, representing native nations that span the western hemisphere, sharing a pride and dignity that is both difficult to describe and immediately evident. It is Grand Entry on Saturday afternoon at an Intertribal Powwow in Southern California.

In its simplest terms, a powwow is a social gathering of Native American Indians which the public is welcome to attend. A powwow is not a show put on for spectators. It is a cultural gathering, live and unscripted, happening in real time and with real individuals. There are no actors. There are no scripts.

There are two basic kinds of powwows; the contest powwow and intertribal or “social” powwow. Contest powwows have become the larger, more glamorous variety, often sponsored by casinos, where prize money is awarded to winners of dance and drums competitions.

The intertribal powwow is often smaller than its competitive cousin but no less important to the Indian community as a means for cultural outreach and exchange between communities. In fact, it could be argued that the intertribal or social powwow holds an unparalleled place as a means of cultural preservation and public education. It is at these social gatherings where attendees are likely to meet native people who come for no other reason than to share their knowledge, experience and spiritual strength with others, Indian and non-Indian alike.

Make no mistake, however, there is a business end to these intertribal gatherings. Many elements must come together to create a successful event that spectators and participants will return to year after year. One of the key elements to the business of powwow is understanding the importance of both participants and visitors. Their relationship is symbiotic.

Most urban intertribal gatherings are held at parks, on school fields, and in other public places rented or donated by public and private entities. Most such gatherings are hosted by all-volunteer committees comprised of native and non-native members, and most of these are not well-funded. Their income is derived from vendor fees, donations, raffles and the occasional grant. Sponsorship by local businesses or larger Indian nations must be solicited, and a powwow must often begin without these, attracting sponsors only after they have held several successful events on their own.

In the business of powwow, there is a balancing act in progress. With a limited budget, the committee must choose and provide monetary compensation for its head staff, usually no less than five people and ordinarily more, as well as at least one, and usually two, host drums; one which performs northern style songs and the other, southern style, as the dancers who participate represent a mixture of cultures.

The committee will need to tackle issues such as liability insurance, health permits for food vendors, fire department safety regulations, event permits and in some cases, seller's licensing and permits. If the organizing body is a federally recognized non profit group, the fees for some of these items will be reduced or waived, but the codes requirements and regulations surrounding them must still be met.

Finally, the committee is usually expected to provide a feed for all of the head staff, singers and dancers, usually on Saturday evening, a traditional way of saying thank you to those who have come to participate, and an integral part of the fabric of the native community.

Vendor fees are the most common source of revenue for a group without funding, but here too there is a balancing act going on. Vendors expect the committee to provide the advertising that will bring the spectators who will buy the goods that sustain the vendors. They will also expect a committee to be responsible about the number of vendors allowed to participate, as too many vendors can spell financial disaster for all of them.

The business of powwow goes on simultaneously on two very different levels. There is the experience happening inside the arena, at the heart and center of the gathering, where the dancers dance, the drummers and singers recite songs, both ancient and contemporary, and ceremonies takes place throughout the day. This is the territory of the head staff; the arena director, master of ceremonies, head dancers and the host drums.

Working as a cohesive unit, they keep the circle sacred. They at once inform the visitors of the happenings within the arena, and keep those events flowing smoothly. This is the territory of Indian people, and it cannot be said often enough that choosing a strong, professional head staff will make or break a powwow. No matter what goes on outside or even within that circle, the head staff conduct the arena with dignity, appropriate protocol, and a sense of order that is essential to maintaining the spiritual nature of the gathering.

Outside the arena, the business of powwow exists on a different level. Vendors and visitors alike have questions, concerns, suggestions and issues. Reporters need instructions about what should and should not be photographed. There needs to be enough visitors to support the goals of the powwow committee, which may elect to ask for a donation or even charge an entrance fee to visitors (some native people feel very negatively about charging spectators a fee).

Those visitors also need to provide sufficient income for the vendors who have paid in advance for their space, and who endure whatever Mother Nature deals them to spend two or three days in the middle of a soccer field, dirt lot or gymnasium, hoping the committee has done a good job advertising the powwow.

Like any business, advertising is a crucial element to the success of a powwow, and it also occurs on two levels; within and outside of the native community. Months before the gathering, committee members need to begin distributing fliers at other powwows, at native owned-businesses, trading posts, and other Indian events. They also need to take advantage of the many powwow listings on the internet, as well as periodicals that serve native communities.

Calendar sections of newspapers, television stations, web sites and trade publications can serve as free or inexpensive means to get the word out to the general public. Posters, which need not be fancy but should be clear and inviting, should be placed in local shops, libraries and other public places. Fliers should also be left at every local venue that will give permission to do so.

The best free advertising is a newspaper article the day before the event, showing vendor booths or tepees being set up, or even showing a photo of dancers in regalia from a previous event. With a little effort, local papers will often be receptive to a pre-event article.

The powwow attracts two basic types of spectator. One of them will drive one hundred miles to come to your gathering because they know what a powwow is and what it feels like to be there. The other one lives within five blocks of where the gathering is being held, and they've been to your powwow before, or they've heard about it and come out of curiosity. The first type will likely have picked up your flier at another powwow or found it on the internet. The second type needs a flier on their doorstep the weekend before the event.

Even with the best of planning and the best intentions, a powwow is a cultural event that happens in real time, with real people and unpredictable events. Weather can affect the turn-out. A conflicting event can leave the arena longing for dancers. A website can mysteriously fail to function during the weekend of the event. A death in the native community can affect attendance of even the most reliable members of that community.

Of all this, only two things will insure the long term success of an intertribal powwow, and these are sincerity and commitment. The urban Native American culture has survived to this day not because of government subsidies, casinos or the idealism of Hollywood, but because of the native peoples' very strong sense of community, and their desire to preserve their culture and uphold traditional values.

Perseverance, honesty, integrity and honorable intentions are held in high regard in this community, and these alone will earn a committee the respect and loyalty of its vendors, dancers, singers, and head staff. The intertribal powwow is a business, yes, but it is much more than that. It is an urban adaptation of a culture carefully guarded and preserved over millennia. It is an invaluable way of continuation, celebration and affirmation for native peoples, and it is at the heart and core of their being. If you build it in a good way, and nurture it with unwavering dedication, the people will come.

Written by Corina Roberts, Writer/Photographer and Founder of Redbird, a 501(c)(3) non profit charitable and educational Native American association.

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