The coronavirus pandemic brought powwow season largely to a screeching halt last year.
Some powwows cancelled their annual events; others went online only. Some held virtual competitions and cultural events from afar, but left most of the food and art vendors and daily workers sitting on the sidelines.
And powwow season this year will not return to normal either, even with vaccines rolling out and restrictions being lifted in some states.
Several powwows have been cancelled for a second year, or are still up in the air. The Shoshone-Bannock Indian Festival — the largest cultural festival in Idaho — was cancelled this week for a second year, as was the Coeur d’Alene’s Julyamsh powwow, also in Idaho. The Denver March Powwow was also cancelled but left uncertain whether it could be rescheduled for later in the year.
It’s been costly for everyone involved — the organizations that sponsor the events, participants, vendors, and the local communities that look forward to the economic boost they bring.
“As an Indigenous artist, most of my venues are powwows and other tribal-sponsored events such as conferences and sports tournaments,” bead and shell artist Jennifer DeHoyos, Payomkawichum/Cahuilla/Kumeyaay, told Indian Country Today.
“The impact was great.”
The message is: Check ahead before you go, and let’s hope next year is back to normal.
A BEACON OF HOPE
Gathering of Nations held its second virtual powwow the weekend of April 23-24 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Since 1983, the event has attracted more than 750 tribes from all over the country and Canada, hosting more than 75,000 attendees. Known as the “Super Bowl of Powwows,” the event drew about 91,000 people to its last in-person powwow in 2019.
For Gathering of Nations Founder Derek Mathews, the decision to go virtual rather than cancel was the best option. He considers the Gathering of Nations a beacon of hope for Indigenous communities of the world.
“We needed to keep the bright light on because if it shuts down here, we’ve turned it off, maybe for a lot of people. Keep a light on and keep looking to the future,” Mathews told Indian Country Today in a recent interview. Mathews is of Native descent but is not affiliated with a tribe.
Additionally, it has provided an opportunity for Gathering of Nations to be a leader in health and safety for the community by using its large platform to spread information throughout the past year on the coronavirus, preventative measures and established nonprofits that can assist Natives during the pandemic, he said.
Central Michigan University’s Celebrating Life Pow Wow also opted for a virtual event for a second year on March 20-21. The student-run event is one of the first powwows of the season within the state, and draws a crowd of about 2,000 annually to see more than 200 competitors.
Students were devastated in 2020 when the annual powwow was cancelled at the beginning of the pandemic. But they proposed a virtual powwow instead, said Native American Programs Director Colleen Green, a citizen of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.
Though some COVID restrictions were lifted in Michigan before this year’s event, local government guidelines prevented an in-person powwow, Green said.
“We are close to the reservation here, and there’s a lot of Indigenous communities within Michigan and we just didn’t want to make anyone get sick,” said Onyleen Zapata, a citizen of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, a Central Michigan University undergraduate and co-chair for the powwow.
The National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development recently announced that its Reservation Economic Summit, RES2021, will be held both in-person and virtually this year. The event — which includes an artisan market, trade show and business networking — will be held July 19-21 in Las Vegas.
The financial losses have spread throughout the communities.
For the city of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico, the Gathering of Nations Powwow is a huge source of revenue. With an economic impact of $22 million for Albuquerque annually, the pandemic planted a blow on the tourist, hotel and restaurant businesses that profit from the event.
Mathews said last year’s loss was “100 per cent.” Tickets to the event and participation fees were on sale beginning in the fall of 2019, with a cost of $19 for a one-day admission, $42 for a two-day pass and $85 for a two-day VIP pass. But when the pandemic hit, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham ordered a pause on large events on state properties.
The Gathering of Nations team decided to put together the 2020 powwow on their website in collaboration with Powwows.com, streaming an enhanced replay of the 2019 powwow on one website and musical performances on another.
“There was no revenue. We lost it all in a sense because we use vendor fees, advanced tickets, sponsorships to put the production together,” Mathews said. “The week going into it, you’d see tractor-trailers bringing the stage and lighting, flooring, fencing. It’s major. But people don’t understand, you can’t go into a gym, turn on the lights, get a folding table, set up a microphone and go. It’s a big, big, big production, indoors and outdoors.”
Unlike Gathering of Nations, a non-profit organization that relies on ticket sales and funding from local governments and sponsors, the Celebrating Life Pow Wow is fully funded by Central Michigan University. Admission is regularly $7, but the virtual events were free both years.
`POWWOW SHOPPING NETWORK’
Vendors have also taken a financial hit.
Many virtual powwows are trying to include vendors by setting up dedicated webpages for powwow merchandise and goods. Vendors send in photos of their products to be featured on the page in a typical online shopping format.
After the 2020 in-person powwow was cancelled, Gathering of Nations did not offer refunds because of pre-paid production costs, but invited the vendors to attend the virtual market and offered a free spot to the next in-person trader’s market, currently scheduled for 2022.
The Gathering of Nations’ Virtual Traders’ Market for 2021 will live on a separate page on the website, in a classic online shopping format. Products were also featured and promoted during the virtual event.
Last year, the Celebrating Life Pow Wow did the same thing. But this year they decided to go with a “QVC-style,” traders’ market they coined the “Powwow Shopping Network,” Green said.
Green said vendors were enthusiastic about taking cues from the QVC Network, showing close-ups of their products and going into great detail about their offerings.
“The vendors were just amazing to work with. When I said QVC, they’re like, `OK, I got you,”’ Green said.
The vendor videos were played from noon to 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 21, during the virtual powwow, drawing an audience of about 1,500. When it was their turn, vendors were directed to hop onto the Facebook Live chat to interact with customers and answer any questions.
“It was definitely a brand-new idea,” Zapata said. “Our committee members wanted to get the vendors more involved. This year was more interactive. So that worked out pretty well.”
The Celebrating Life Pow Wow issued refunds last year, while allowing vendors to sell their products without paying a fee. Green said the group waived the vendor fee for this year, too.
“The day we were told we’re shutting the university down we literally refunded everybody by 5 o’clock,” Green said. “We want to make sure that you get some recognition as well.”
But virtual powwows and trader’s markets haven’t been successful for everybody.
“With no events I had to re-evaluate and evolve my way of doing business very quickly,” said DeHoyos, the bead and shell artist. “It really was a sink-or-swim type of situation as I rely on my sales to help make ends meet and put food on the table for my five kids.”
Before the pandemic, DeHoyos would do at least four powwows a year along with other tribal events. She has participated in two West Coast virtual powwows and two online marketplaces, but found them confusing, difficult to navigate, and felt alone after giving the co-ordinators her information.
“The ones I participated in, to me, seemed like a list of resources posted to their main pages,” she said. “So, I’m certain that my social media following did increase because of the exposure, but I’m not completely convinced that I got new customers from those venues.”
Social media, rather than powwows, has been the main source of income for many Native vendors during the pandemic, DeHoyos said.
“I hate to say it but right now my social media following is everything,” she said.
WHERE’S THE BEEF?
The smell of powwow food is missing from the virtual events, however, and so, largely, are the food vendors.
Even socially distanced powwows pose problems. Poor availability of crews and wary customers are difficult to overcome, vendors said.
“People are easily grossed out by food, even though we would be wearing masks, gloves and are clean,” said food vendor Jolene Mangilinan, Cahuilla/Luiseno/Paiute.
Mangilinan, who regularly cooks food at funerals, had planned to get more into the powwow scene last year but the pandemic stopped her plans.
“Me and my crew thought about a food truck or a trailer, but since COVID we’ve all split up,” she said. “I’ve got kids in online school. My friend has to work the graveyard shift. My crew is not a crew anymore. We’ve had to move on. We can’t wait for jobs.”
Now that food vendors who relied on the powwow circuit and other tribal events have had to find other opportunities, Mangilinan is worried there will be no one left to do the job.
“This isn’t just stuff you learn in a day, it’s something you need to learn all of your life,” she said. “There’s a lot that goes into cooking and it’s not for everybody.”
With the overhead costs, licensing fees, vendor fees and sheer competition, it’s a difficult business to break into, she said.
Working in-person events like powwows during the pandemic can have additional costs, including increased sanitation, to-go boxes and individually wrapped condiments and utensils.
Even many large, well-attended virtual powwows like Gathering of Nations have yet to perfect a way to bring food back to the powwow experience. Mathews said their team looked into partnerships with food delivery apps, but creating these partnerships and a network of local vendors across the nation proved to be too difficult.
But the Celebrating Life Pow Wow has defied the odds. After reaching out to food vendors, Green said the local Jackson Food Stand was up for the challenge. Owner Julia Jackson sold out both days of the event, with orders coming in over the phone, online and in-person. Orders were delivered and some customers came to her home, where she and her crew cooked Indian tacos, nachos, fry dogs, fry bread, soup and desserts.
“People were understanding when they would call to place an order and we said, `We’ll work you in when we can.’ And everyone was respectful of my home, wearing masks, and they asked before they came in,” Jackson said.
People drove from other cities, some more than two hours away, for Jackson’s food, Green said. Jackson’s team was so busy that she pulled her husband, Delmar, Saginaw Chippewa, out of retirement to aid with the cooking.
“My grandkids asked me, `How many did you cook for today?’ And I said, `Grandma couldn’t tell you. I just know it was a lot,”” Jackson said.
The powwow organizers were happy to give back to local Native businesses by offering free publicity for any food vendors, Green said.
“Last year, we didn’t contact the vendors for food at all, because of course, we were on complete lockdown back then. And this year, we wanted to open it up to our vendors, especially the food vendors,” Green said. “As long as we’re not held liable, you have all of your health certificates and safe-serve certifications and all of that, you can do this from your house. We’ll just publicize this for you. No cost at all.”
For Jackson, the event was well worth it. She said it was her big break back into the powwow scene, as she plans to attend two local Michigan powwows in July and August in person.
“I’m looking forward for the powwows to start back up, but there’s going to be a lot of changes,” she said. “My son is on a powwow committee. He said we can’t have bottled ketchup and mustard; it has to be individual packets. Silverware wrapped. And that’s the safest thing we can do. Respect what our committee is asking of all the traders and it will turn out OK.”
Jackson is hopeful that her 40-year-old business will succeed after the pandemic is over. Before, Jackson’s crew usually included 16 workers in shifts. But for her first pandemic powwow, she had a crew of five. With more in-person powwows coming, she is anxious to get more of her family involved again.
“It’s a family business and I want it to continue after Delmar and I are gone so we can look down and see how it continues to grow and go on,” Jackson said.
For Gathering of Nations, the Celebrating Life Pow Wow and other virtual powwows, the fees to compete in dancing, singing and drumming competitions are often waived or minimal, but prizes are still awarded.
Gathering of Nations hosted competitions over Zoom, while others, such as the Celebrating Life Pow Wow, have asked contestants to send in pre-recorded videos.
One contestant, Cruz Perez, Saginaw Chippewa, regularly competes in the Celebrating Life Pow Wow as one of 10 he attends each year. Perez — a dancer who won $400 for second place in the Adult Men’s Traditional category this year — enjoys the healing energy and cultural connection of attending powwows over the monetary compensation for winning, though there are some who rely on powwow winnings to help make ends meet.
“I miss being able to see other people dance and to talk with them, and virtual just isn’t the same because it’s just a lot of technological use,” he said. “It’s still good, though, being able to see all my people on Facebook pages submitting their videos for competitions.”
In a normal year, the Celebrating Life Pow Wow has about 200 people competing. This year, they received 79 uploaded dance videos and five hand drum uploads. Some categories had up to eight contestants; others had one or none competing.
The number of contestants isn’t too far off the norm, Green said. What was shocking was the reach of the virtual competitions this year and last year.
“We were able to see championship dancers all across the United States and Canada the last two years as opposed to half of the United States and part of Canada,” Green said. “Prior to that, we typically get people from Oklahoma, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, parts of Canada, in Ontario, sometimes New York — pretty regional for our university powwow. This year, we had people out in British Columbia, Saskatchewan; we had people in California, New Mexico and Idaho.”
Similarly, the Gathering of Nations powwow, which normally draws close to 3,000 contestants, will have about 300 contestants from across the country and Canada, with one dancer from Europe and one from Nigeria.
A benefit to livestreaming the powwows on social media is the everlasting quality of the posts, Green and Mathews said.
“It has allowed us to reach more people and embrace their lives in some manner or another, whether it’s the music, whether it’s the phenomenal dancing. We were able to reach over 24,000 people this year. Last year, I think it was around 34,000. We’re still getting hits on our Facebook videos and pages,” Green said.
When the Gathering of Nations went virtual for the first time last year, it had nearly 400,000 views — a 10 per cent increase from their previously live-streamed powwows, Mathews said.
But the virtual powwows and competitions don’t fully replace the live events.
“I miss being there in the moment,” said Zapata, the co-chair of the Celebrating Life Pow Wow. “I was raised around the drum. Being a dancer, being there is what I miss. It’s all about community for me, being able to walk around, see family and friends, engaging and having a great time all around.”
Some contests, including some of the Native royalty pageants, are cancelled until further notice. The Miss Indian World — the largest of its kind — was cancelled in 2020, with titleholder Cheyenne Kippenberger agreeing to serve a second term.
Kippenberger will step down April 24, however, on the final day of the event, without passing on the crown; for the first time since 1983, Miss Indian World will remain unfilled until 2022.
“I really had to find a new way to be Miss Indian World essentially,” said Kippenberger, a former Miss Florida Seminole.
For Gathering of Nations, a team of 50 people worked behind-the scenes from the fairgrounds in Albuquerque and elsewhere to make the event run smoothly online.
The team has also produced a sort of time capsule by combing through decades of footage of performances, to edit together the best performances and contest specials from previous years played throughout the weekend, Mathews said.
“The people that have started out as tiny tots are now parents, and some of them are grandparents,” Mathews said. “And then there’s those that aren’t with us anymore, and those that we’ve lost during the Coronavirus. We saw them in these videos; they came back one more time. And so that was very, very special.”
For organizers, dancers, vendors and attendees, virtual powwows are still missing one key element, however: the feeling of community. They’re not a replacement for the real thing.
“Someone asked me, `What do you miss by not going to powwows?”’ said Mathews. “I said, `Seeing it. Feeling it. Smelling it.’ If nothing else, those are elements. As soon as you arrive, they’re there, and you can smell leather, food; hear bells, drums, the people talking and laughing.”
DeHoyos, the vendor, misses making lifelong friends and connecting with her customers.
“There is something to be said for seeing the look on people’s faces when they are admiring my jewelry,” she said. “That really is an amazing feeling and I really miss seeing the smile on people’s faces when they get what they want and walk away wearing it.”
Jackson said powwows were always family time. Long ago, she and her husband cooked as the children danced. Now her children make regalia for their own children to participate. She recalled their first powwow after her husband had multiple bypass surgery.
“Everyone surrounded us to ask if we were OK, to tell us they prayed for us,” she said. “We were so thankful. Every day is a blessing. And every day that I can feed people is another blessing for me.”
Since the pandemic hit, many have learned not to take the experience for granted.
“I miss grand entries,” Kippenberger said. “I know I probably complained so much while we were doing them, because you’re sweating and it’s hot. But I really miss it. Here in Florida, we don’t have a very heavy Native population. When you go to a powwow in Oklahoma, you end up running into everybody that you possibly have known since you were a child.
“We’re a very tight-knit, communal people,” she said. “So it’s very difficult to be away from each other. We just miss each other. We miss hugging each other and hearing each other in person and just being able to sit and laugh and, and share stories.”