There are a few sets of circles at the powwow. The center circle serves as the area where representatives of each tribe dances. Just outside of the center circle is a sitting-area circle which holds the drum groups, dancers and their families. The outer circle is where spectators take in all the action. Just beyond the onlookers are vendors that sell Native American crafts, jewelry, art and food.
For many, the powwow is a productive way to celebrate their culture as well as educate non-Indians who are curious to learn more. The powwow session begins with the Grand Entry. Members holding an Eagle staff and flags led dancers into the circle while the drums opened with a song. At Saturday’s celebration, the tribes took a moment to pay respects to members of the military in attendance. After a prayer, an intertribal dance began.
As the drum group thumped away, the dancers joined in. Throughout the weekend, dancers are graded by their dance movements and participation. Dancers compete for first, second and third place.
The Taino, who were the inhabitants met by Christopher Columbus when he arrived to the “New World,” come from the Greater Antilles, such as Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Puerto Rico.
Louis, a Taino and a fancy dance dancer, said that while the Tainos participate in a number of modern fancy dress competitions, there are still traditional and historical aspects that many outsiders may not know about.
“When the native up north were outlawed from dancing, they devised these fancy dances for tourists,” he said. “And within these fancy dances, they snuck in traditional dances that they weren’t allowed to do.”
The regalia, or clothing worn by the dancers, can be heavy and uncomfortable for some dancers. However, it’s important for dancers to distinguish themselves. Additionally, those not wearing the proper regalia for their tribe end up not placing in the competition. Alex, of the Lakota in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, wears his regalia while dancing and singing within the drum group.
In South Dakota, pow wows are held all-year long either outdoors or indoors in places like school gyms if the weather isn’t panning out. Alex attended this pow wow because his father was a vendor.
Vendors ranged at the pow wow. Many sold staple Native American foods such as frybread, a type of deep-fried dough with toppings, and Indian tacos.
Others sold handmade jewelry, crafts and art. Vendor Kim Lewis, of Native Visions: American Indian Art, grew up in Missouri and Oklahoma, where she became more familiarized with Native American art. She sells art that mostly come from Oklahoma or Southwestern tribes, like the Navajo. Lewis credits Oklahoma with the beginnings of the unique Native American painting technique of “flatstyle,” where there is an absence of background in the piece.
Award winning Native American artist Jeanne Rorex Bridges is an artist who sometimes uses flatstyle to help portray complicated matters such as relationships between Native Americans and their slaves as well as the issues of race and family.
There are plenty of opportunities to learn more about various Native American cultures. For instance, a short distance away from Queens, in Southampton, Long Island, stands the Shinnecock Museum and Cultural Center where visitors can learn more about the descendant tribe of the Algonquins.
“History says that we do not exist,” Louis said. “We’re still very much alive.”