NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN
With Color and Pageantry, Denver March Powwow Signals the Season’s Opening
After two years of cancellations, Native powwows across Indian Country make a thriving and significant comeback
“We as Native people who were raised around the arena believe that the dance circle is for healing and the drum is our heartbeat! When we came together at Denver March Powwow it felt like a homecoming and the feeling was humbling being around all tribes both northern and southern. Sharing our songs, hearing the laughter, renewing old friendships and making new memories! Being able to attend was a true blessing!” Cheyenne Chief Jason Good Blanket
Denver March Powwow is often referred to as “the unofficial start of powwow season.” Powwows are a celebration of being Indigenous, with music and dance as their focal points. Modern powwows begin with a grand entry led by Native service members who carry the eagle staff, American and other flags representing the homelands and military service of Native peoples. They are immediately followed by Native princesses who serve as ambassadors for their tribes, organizations and schools.
The National Museum of the American Indian currently has a Denver March Powwow exhibit in the Our Universes gallery on the 4th level of the museum in Washington D.C. In this exhibition are Denver March Powwow memorabilia from when the museum opened its doors in 2004. One object that is featured is the Denver March Powwow beaded princess crown. Each year, a new Denver March Powwow Princess is chosen to represent the powwow by travelling to powwows and events throughout Indian Country.
I reached out to a few people who were able to attend the long-anticipated return to the Denver March Powwow. Here's what they shared with me about their experience of the occasion.
“The Denver March Powwow began as a modest gathering in the ballroom of the Indian Culture Center in Denver. In recent years the event has drawn more than 55,000 spectators to the Denver Coliseum each spring. The registered dance groups represent about 95 different tribes from 35 states and five Canadian provinces. Gillette noted that 1,500 dancers participate joined by 35 drum groups. Alas, the 2020 and 2021 powwows had to be canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This year would have been the 47th.
Two years ago, the Denver March Powwow (DMPW) Committee was devastated. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic on March 11 in the afternoon and that night the board voted to call off the powwow which was a timely decision because the mayor closed all city venues on March 13. We were days away from our start date, the staff immediately start contacting the arts and crafts vendors, head staff, hotels, and other associates. The response to large and small non-profit cultural organizations began two weeks later with a Zoom meeting on March 27 hosted by a collaborative of Denver’s philanthropic community and city/state agencies. For the past two years, they have provided moral and financial support to us as the world adjusted to the devastation of Covid-19.
As soon as the Governor lifted the restrictions for large indoor seated events in late May 2021, the board felt we needed to do something for the Denver community. We held the Native American Heritage Month Celebration Powwow and Indian Market, November 26-28, 2021, at the National Western Complex Stadium Arena. During the preliminary planning stages of the November event, we still did not know if we could host our annual Denver March Powwow at the Denver Coliseum because it was still being utilized as a homeless shelter and there was no exit plan in place.
As soon as we received official word that we could hold our annual event in the Denver Coliseum, we began the preparation process. There were many obstacles but with perseverance and faith, we were able to bring Denver’s largest springtime celebration to life once again.” Grace Gillette (Arikara), Executive Director of Denver March Powwow
“As a person coming from the east coast where we don’t have many large events that go for three full days, there were so many drum groups, and it is a lot to take in. Seeing grand entry with dancers lined up and being led in by the carrying of the drum, it was emotional for me. Because I remember even back when we first began powwows in our area, our elders would walk in singing and carrying the drum. To me that was so powerful and significant in setting the stage and kept the powwow from being a show. It connected us to our cultural roots.
One thing I noticed is that even though I had little to no sleep before getting to Denver, I did not feel tired. I was totally engaged the entire time. I made many connections, all along feeling less of a stranger to a different area but more like family with distant relatives. Like friends of old where we don’t know time or distance but jumping in right where we left off from the last word or hug after saying "I hope to see you again".
I wish the weekend could have never ended. The energy of day and night seemed seamless, except for a few hours of sleep. One of the things I enjoyed the most was the friendliness of everyone including the dancers, singers and spectators. People spoke and said hello and that was warming. I don’t often get that experience in the east coast unless I am in the south. The emcees were so informative and just the vibe of each of their voices felt so calming.
There are many things one could look at to say why we were there. To dance for family members, to dance for joy and just dance for completion. For me it was to forget everyday life for a few days and re-live it as we have always known it to be ancient years ago. To sit around and see young eyes bear witness and feel the presence of the ones who have crossed over; that is what meant the most to me. To make friends, to laugh until my face and chest hurt; those moments I live for.
I came to the powwow only knowing what I heard but left with more than I could ever imagine. I will certainly try to make it back time and time again. Denver March Powwow is a place where we can be free to express who we are, to sing, dance, sell our crafts, watch, pray and just be. It is our true safe space.” First time visitor, John Scott-Richardson (Haliwa-Saponi Tribe), New York City