In 1969, three gentlemen held the first National Powwow to celebrate and share American Indian culture. The event occurs every three years, with dances taking place in various parts of the country, including Colorado, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Indiana. The Hendricks County Fairgrounds in Danville has hosted National Powwow since 2005 and returns again this July 6 through 9, after a hiatus due to the pandemic (it was scheduled to occur in July 2020).
The four-day celebration includes a princess contest, children’s powwow, educational seminars, arts and crafts competitions, and four nights of intertribal dancing. This year will also include a 5K fun run on Friday.
“What’s unique about this event is that it provides a lot of time for fellowship,” says Amy Brewer, marketing co-chair. “Although there’s a lot of dancing, you can’t dance all day for four days straight, so we’ve come up with other things people can do to engage in fellowship.”
The educational seminars cover crafts, dance styles, music and more. For example, one year they had a man talk about what the Native American flute symbolized. He played some music and provided resources on how to make your own flute. Another seminar covered how to make a feather bustle as well as other pieces to the outfits.
This year a man from Florida will bring his massive collection of historical moccasins that he’s accumulated dating back to the 1980s.
“What he’s bringing is comparable to what would be displayed at the Eiteljorg Museum,” says Jeff Brewer, marketing co-chair. “He’s the authority on Cheyenne moccasins in the country who has been involved with the National Powwow since the 1970s.”
Moccasins are more than footwear. They have different symbols and meanings based on their combination of colors. Different tribes wear different symbols. Some are beaded and some are not. Some have paint while others don’t.
“You can walk around the grounds and ask people, ‘How did you make that?’ or ‘What’s the significance of the color in that beadwork?’” Jeff says. “This is an opportunity to do a deep dive into the culture.”
“The whole point of National Powwow is to share knowledge,” Amy adds.
Spectators like getting exposed to a culture they have heard about but never seen in action. For instance, it’s fun to look at the teepee encampment that includes both rustic and modern teepees.
The princess contest organizers ask contestants to write an essay about something related to the modern world and the Native American culture – what they would like to see changed or how to promote the culture. The contest also includes an interview portion to help get a sense of the contestant’s character. They dance and participate in a number of activities. They are judged not so much on their dancing style, but rather their outfit and dedication to dancing. Once a princess is crowned with a beaded crown, for the next three years they act as a spokeswoman for the National Powwow. Due to the pandemic-related cancellation of the event in 2020, the reigning princess has held her title for the past six years.
“She’s ready to turn over that crown,” Jeff says with a chuckle.
In the past they’ve had magic shows as well as demonstrations on how to make arrowheads out of rocks.
“We try to have things that appeal to a wide audience,” Amy says.
The dancing, however, is the high point for most people. The Powwow features a number of different dance styles including Men’s Grass (the oldest of the surviving tribal dances), Jingle Dress Dance, Chicken Dance, the Native American Gourd Dance, Lady’s Southern Cloth, and Men’s Fancy or Feather (a fast-paced dance that tests personal stamina). Many other dance styles are featured as well. Those who attend the National Powwow can join in the dancing but are not required to.
“Even if you don’t dance, you can still share in the culture,” says Amy, who describes the event like a family reunion of sorts.
“I see these people peppered throughout the country, but this is on everyone’s calendar to be here at this event,” Jeff says. “It’s powerful having us all come together at one dance. Every year I’m energized and I leave with a great feeling of community, friendship and fellowship.”
Vendors will sell jewelry, leather, paintings, sculptures, Pendleton blankets, and raw goods like beads.
Art Tate, a military vet, has attended eight of the previous 17 National Powwows.
“Each one has made a positive and permanent mark on me,” says Tate, who has served as a head man dancer at National Powwow Four, and subsequently as the program coordinator and chairperson at nationals.
“National Powwow is uniquely special, and always leaves me with amazing memories of good times with my family, close friends and acquaintances throughout the United States,” Tate says. “As soon as the gates are closed at one National, I’m looking forward to the next.”
Jeff notes that the National Powwow is all about honoring our veterans. In fact, there is a veterans song played, during which veterans are invited to dance in the arena whether they are dressed in uniform or not.
“You put your life on the line for this country,” Jeff says. “We want to honor you.”
This is the fourth time the National Powwow has taken place in Danville. The Hendricks County Fairgrounds is the perfect facility to hold it for many reasons. For starters, it’s covered, so there’s no need to worry about inclement weather. There’s also plenty of indoor space for classes and competitions, as well as outdoor space for camping and teepees. In addition, Indiana often provides pleasantly cool nights. Plus, it stays light until around 9 p.m.
“We feel we’ve found a home in Danville,” Jeff says. “It fits all of our needs, so if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Let the good times roll!”
The National Powwow will take place July 6 through 9. Gates open at 8 a.m. and close at 10:30 p.m. The Hendricks County Fairgrounds are located at 1900 East Main Street in Danville. For more information, call 317-718-6154 or visit nationalpowwow.com.