It is 9:47 A.M. on a Saturday morning in late May. The Mesa parking lot is full of massive white trailers and trucks with a variety of license plates ranging from Arizona and New Mexico, to Washington State. The skies are partly cloudy with a humidity of 64% and the wind blowing southwest at 9 MPH at the Mesa field at the University of California Irvine. The POWWOW staff, vendors, drummers, and dancers are all done setting up their booths, hoping for the sun to chase the clouds away.
The UCI powwow is the largest in Orange County. People of all colors walked towards the sounds of heavily beaten drums. There was large dirt of hump that separated the Mesa Parking Lot from the Mesa Court Field, and ahead were red, white, and blue canopies on the crisply cut and freshly watered green grass that stretched 54,405.5 square feet. There was an outer and inner circle of canopies. The outer circle of 24 canopies was for the vendors, selling all types of traditional Indian items, such as, jewelry, clothing, dream catchers, music, books and food. The inner circle of 18 canopies consisted of the different groups and their stations, they were the drummers.
The term “powwow” is derived from the Narargansett word pauwau, which originally referred to curing ceremonies. The term soon passed into English as a word referring to any Indian gathering or as a verb meaning “to confer in council”. In Indian Country, it came to mean a “secular event featuring group singing and social dancing by men, women, and children.”
Powwows are not just inter-tribal social gatherings; powwows are a way of life that embraces diverse Native cultures and reaches across national borders, as well as political, social, cultural, spiritual, and ideological boundaries. At powwows, Native people pay homage to past, present, and future generations of Native Americans from all tribes through music, dance, giveaways, naming, and other ceremonies. In the past, powwows were hosted by a single community; now they create a physical and spiritual circle in which many tribes may share their traditions, languages, songs, dances, foods, jokes, and blessings. Perhaps most importantly, powwows represent cultural survival and the perseverance to celebrate and maintain Native identity into the 21st century.
The UCI American Indian Student Association is a cultural, social, community service, and political student organization. One of the original founding organizations of the UCI Cross-Cultural Center in 1974, AISA is still an active and outspoken student club on campus. Because Native students are a minority on the Irvine campus, it is AISA’s mission to give these students a voice and to educate UCI students about Native issues. There are 10 regular members, Phillip Yu is the treasurer of their organization. He says that AISA is “ a gathering place for Native Americans... for me I view it as a place for Native Americans to gather, a safe place so that they know that they have somewhere that they can go to if they want. We try to do outreach programs to make it aware to other Native American students who are not in college yet so that they know that if they go to college there are people to help take care of you and hang out with. Also to make other students on campus aware of Native American issues because a lot of that is hush hush and just to make the Native American presence bigger on campus. It says that there are 1% of Native Americans on campus, but there is really less and they just rounded up”.
Although Phillip is treasurer of AISA, he is not of Native American blood, along with 7 others. The President and Vice president are the only members who are Native American. The Non-Native Americans all joined the group for the same reason because as Phillip says, they “see a need for it, to get more Native Americans on campus to make it a more diverse campus. There tons of Asians, Caucasians, a few African Americans, and rarely do you see Native Americans because sometimes they look like Latinos and they usually associate themselves as Latinos. They’re more urbanized Native Americans because they view themselves more as Mexican, Hispanic, etc.”
Phillip is extremely enthusiastic about AISA, “we are like a big family, I’m so glad I joined this club, there is no drama everyone is amazing. Two of the members are dating, but that’s not even a problem, it was funny because we just had no idea about it until way after they were dating. We’re all really close, which is another good thing about the club because we want people to be part of our family! We’re so small compared to those clubs that are 200+, we would like to have more members so that it can keep going on”. He would love for more people to join, Native American or not. He comments on why the club would be interesting to someone who wasn’t Native American:
“I guess the interesting part is just to learn about these people that were here before anyone else came along and to find out about the situation they’re in and learn about their culture. Everyone, even me, think like ‘Oh they live in teepees, they smoke marijuana in the big pipes, they say hao and they have super red skin, and it turns out they don’t have red skin, and buffalo was just part of their daily diet like people eat beef. People should join the club to see the real Native Americans, there are way too many stereotypes. One thing I learned is that I thought that they were all rich from casinos, when in fact they actually aren’t because it’s really hard to prove that you have Native American blood, and 1/8th is the minimum. There’s a form you fill out, unless you were born into it, and it should show on your birth certificate to find out your ancestry. You have to be a part of that certain tribe. I found out that back in the day, the goal of the government was to kill off Native Americans. They had boarding schools specifically for native Americans, they took the kids away so that they couldn’t learn the language, hear the stories, so they were brought up to hate themselves for being native Americans. In California, they would pay people to bring in the scalp of Native Americans, it only stopped in the 1990s. This is only a little tiny bit of information that I learned from being in AISA, it’s not only for Native American blood to learn, but all other ethnicities to expand their learning”.
Even though AISA is a small group, they usually have about one event per quarter, but the powwow is by far the biggest event of the year. Phillip says that planning for the powwow is pretty much a 24/7 process. Throughout the year they have to stay in contact with performers, vendors, answering phone calls & e-mails, selecting out of a big pool of dancers to choose who the head staff is. They want people that help out in the community and are good examples of what a true Native American is, giving them a good image. During the year, AISA has to advertise to the community about the powwow through New U, OC weekly, and going around locally to hand out fliers. Gifts for the head staff (dancers, mc, drummers) are important to select. Raising money for the club is difficult since they are such a small club. “We try to sell cookies and do bake sales and we’re going to try to sell Boba too. We usually hit up places to get donated money; Albertsons donates food to us for our events. Last year we were all brand new at this, the Officers/Chair were first years, so we weren’t as organized for fundraising, but we still made money at the end just a little bit, so basically were going to make as much money as possible and to fund everything that were trying to do because we have to pay our performers and we have to pay the school for “renting the field” and not water the lawn”.
At every powwow, bird singing starts the day off. The phrase bird singing throws many people off. You would think that bird singing would just be a bunch of birds chirping away, it has more meaning than that. A line of semi-large dark skinned men began playing their small hand drums while singing to stylistically mimic bird singing, as well as singing about birds, while everyone gathered in front of them and danced.
After the bird singing, the endless drumming and dancing began.
The drum contest lasted both days of the powwow, it is one of the biggest events at every powwow, the winner of the contest would win $500. Before a performance by Sacred Wind, the drummers placed tobacco on top of their drums and closed their eyes.
“We must give an offering to our drum, tobacco is important to us and it is our sacrifice to her. We treat our drums like we would treat our ladies”, says Korey Curley, a Navajo from Arizona, cousin of a drummer on Sacred Wind.
“The drum is recognized as the ‘heartbeat of our people’, it is the central feature to the Pow Wow, or any other Native American Gathering. At Pow Wow, each drum comes prepared with a repertoire of as many as 200 songs. It is divided into Northern and Southern styles, the listener and judges will notice singing which differs in tempo, pitch, song, configuration, and style”.
There were over 20 vendors, one of most well-known, as well as oldest, is Juan Thornbush who sells silver and turquoise jewelry. When asked about how he started out doing business at powwows, he began his childhood story.
“I have been going to powwows since I was in the womb. My mother’s parents had been making jewelry since they were teenagers. As a toddler, I would travel all over the west coast with my family to powwows. I was constantly around them as they were making jewelry, when I was old enough, they allowed me to help them polish the jewelry before it was put out on display. I fell in love with the intricate designs my grandfather etched onto his silver jewelry and I asked if he could teach me. My grandfather complied and I started working as his apprentice, learning how to melt the silver at the ideal temperatures to mold and to etch, how to set the turquoise into the silver, how to cut the turquoise into flowers and other beautiful objects and designs”
As he grew older and older, he started doing more of the jewelry making and they switched roles as his grandfather started watching him, until it was completely 100% him making all of the jewelry.
Since he had been to over thousands of powwows, he explains how the powwow has changed throughout the decades.
“There are many slight differences, but the main change is the lack of respect for the regalia from the dancers who wear them. The regalia is a ceremonial clothing worn to honor the powwow. Nowadays, the people who wear them run around with them as if they were everyday clothing, which is not how they should be treated. They should wear them with honor.”
There were over 27 dancers, ages ranging from 2-72 years old, dressed in traditional Native American Regalia. Regalia is the traditional attire, it is not a costume because it has more meaning than a costume, it is a unique expression of spirit , often compromised of heirlooms and other articles handmade by family and friends, or even handed down generation to generation. The regalia consisted of breastplate chokers, war bonnets, dance bustles, ceremonial fans, and buckskin war shirts. These regalia are made out of leather, bone, horse hair, feathers, and other Native American natural materials, all genuine and home-made from scratch.
Seven-year-old Starr Begay, is a good example of what Juan said about respect. Starr is dancer, she was wearing a purple jingle dress with metal cones and a bright green and orange shall and a feather braided into her hair says “I love going to all the powwows with my mommy and grandma, they always tell me ‘stop running around in your regalia’”, she yells in her mimicking voice, “ I want to run around with the other little kids because while we don’t dance we want to do something.”
Along with traditional dancing, they had Azteca dancing, being the last performance of the powwow. Phillip says they “ bring out the cultural stuff, art jewelry and dance, this year we had azteca dance perfomers come. Aztecs are not exctinct! They are alive and living here. I was surprised, and theres still myans too! They dance with feathers”.
The Aztecs are native to mexico. Their dancing was different than the rest because they were very quick movements, fast drum beats, and the men they wore Lion cloths and very feathery headdresses. The women wear dresses along with even more spectacular headdresses.
There are powwows every weekend from November throughout May in the Southwest and all of Southern California. “You’ll see a lot of different cultural stuff there like bird singers to bless the field, drum competitions for northern and southern styles, the difference is that one is more high pitched than the others, vendors that sell native American handmade jewelry, clothes, beaded work”. Powwows are an “overall a great experience to have in your entire life, definitely put it on your bucket list to go to one”, suggests Phillip. “My favorite part of powwows are the basket weaving, it’s one of the arts and crafts that are available to children, but adults can do it too. American Indians make their baskets by hand and it’s fun learning how they do it.”
AISA is full of dedicated and hard working students. They put a lot of time and effort into everything they do. Although they only have ten members, they put in as much work as clubs that have hundreds of members. Being a small group could be an advantage, they all know each other so well and they are like a family. They love each other and are there for one another. All of their hard work and planning throughout the year was worth all of the hard work. Over 20 vendors, 80 drummers, 30 dancers, and about half a thousand people attended the powwow. A small group can do big things.
Attended/Observed 3 Wednesday meetings at Cross Cultural Center
10 hour observation of Powwow
1.5 hour interview with Phillip Yu, AISA treasurer
30 minute interview with Juan Thornbush, attender/vendor at powwows
30 minute interview with Korey Curley, regular attender at powwows
UCI AISA website
UCI American Indian Resource Program
UCI AISA Facebook
UCI 7th Annual Powwow Youtube