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Powwows build cohesiveness among dancers, drummers, singers and spectators

By Mary Stamp

Behind the scenes at powwows, more occurs than drumming and dancing, fry bread and Indian tacos, crafts and regalia.

2012 Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Encampment
Frankie Skwanqhqu of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and
Ernestine Gopher in intertribal dance.

Amid the competitive jingle, fancy, grass and traditional dancing by age and gender groups, there’s a cohesiveness that builds community among the family and friends who gather, and there’s the prayerful healing that comes through the dance and song, along with building cultural awareness among the Indians and general public. 

Many attend powwows every weekend.

Like other powwows throughout the year, the 2012 Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Encampment and Powwow in August at Riverfront Park promotes respect, honor and dignity as people listen to and experience prayers, ceremonies, speeches and humor.

David BrownEagle, who’s at a powwow every weekend either as emcee or dancing, said that “people become close and become family by ‘adoption.’  That means one may be seen as an uncle, brother, grandfather, auntie, sister, grandmother and even as a ‘cousin.’ These are meant as heartfelt connections and are honored. So when a young person does something he or she shouldn’t, one who has been given the title via adoption may challenge him/her not to do it and will challenge the person to live up to the standards of respect, honor and dignity.”

An enrolled member of the Spokane Tribe on his mother’s side and Ho Chunk Nation on his father’s side, he is an advisor with a social studies background and is presently teaching at The Community School, a project-based learning program at 1300 W. Knox in Spokane. 

Spokane Falls Powwow

Emcees David BrownEagle and Francis Cullooyah converse
in the tent while judges watch teen men's fancy dancer compete. A teen woman jingle dancer is in the foreground.

He has a master’s degree in education, but this is not unusual, David said. There are many other powwow leaders, organizers, dancers and drummers who have associate, bachelor’s, master’s degrees, doctorates and vocational training skills, and work in teaching, community services and business.

David is also an all-round dancer, singer, artist and craftsman. As an emcee, dancer and community leader, he knows many of the drummers, dancers, spectators and vendors. 

Connecting at powwows strengthens the community, called on to support one at times of death, births, illness or hard times.  It’s a gathering of old friends.

“We have a strong sense of family and community.  Our children are safe.  We watch out for each other’s children,” he said.  “Parents are not alone in caring for and challenging their children.  The whole community takes responsibility, and some of it happens at powwows formally and informally.

“When powwow speakers offer prayers and thoughts, others listen.  There’s much more going on at a powwow than dancing and drumming,” David repeated.

Powwows are also about carrying on old traditions, adapting them and beginning new traditions.

“A new song in 2012 becomes a traditional one over time, just as a song first sung in 1912 is now a tradition,” David said.  “Along with the song itself is awareness of who composed it and why.”

Francis Cullooyah, co-emcee with David and director of the Kalispel Cultural Program with the Kalispel Tribe in Usk, Wash., said that “of utmost importance in gatherings are the songs from the many drum groups attending.

“Each individual around a drum has something to offer, whether he’s a drum keeper, lead singer or good singer with a strong voice,” Francis said.  “Songs were given to us by the creator early on in Native American life through the animal spirits we find in the many valleys, mountain tops, rivers and streams in our areas, including Spokane Falls, where people have gathered for many, many generations.”

The forefathers and elders from many tribes have kept the traditions alive.

“The Spirits of these people bring us back again and again, so that the young ones, our children and the future generations can participate in these gatherings called powwows today,” he said.

Times have changed us in many ways, but the spirituality still exists in the place many of our generations of elders once gathered.  I hope for a wonderful and spiritual future for the generations to come,” Francis said.

Shane Garcia, 33, grew up in the Hopi culture, loving the music and songs, but the powwow was not part of that cultural tradition.  It is part of the tradition for his wife, who is Nez Perce and Colville.

Since moving here in 2001, he began attending powwows, which have been part of his life since.

Shane, who has worked with The NATIVE Project since 2008 and became a mental health counselor with youth after earning a master’s degree in social work at Eastern Washington University in 2010, was chair of the 2012 encampment and powwow in Riverfront Park

“I go to many powwows now.  My children who are 13, four and two dance, and I sing,” he said.

The value for him is the spiritual connection and sense of belonging to a race, culture, ethnicity, family and community.

The dancing, drumming and singing are ways of praying and healing.

“Dancing connects the dancer to the earth, the sacred ground,” he said.  “It opens the gates to the spiritual world and is a way of praying for people who are at the powwow and for family. 

Dancing and singing open our minds.  It’s medicine,” Shane explained.  “They help us see wider than ourselves, to see that we are connected to everything.  Living in the world is tough.  Connecting with other things and people makes life simpler.”

When limited funds meant that the Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Encampment and Powwow was not held last year, many planners, organizers, individual supporters and volunteers came together to make sure it would not only happen this year but also be carried on and expanded each year.

For generations, there have been powwows in the Spokane area, and they continue to be held at parks, gyms and community centers, David said.  There were powwows at Peaceful Valley, High Bridge Park and Franklin Park, where he danced when he was in his early 20s in the 1970s.

Since 1989, the Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Encampment and Powwow has been held in Riverfront Park. 

This powwow’s website said, “It has been a sacred tradition for many tribes in the Northwest to gather beside the river, which gives life, love, hope and revitalization.” 

Tribes of the area—the Spokane, Colville Confederated Tribes, Coeur d’Alene, Kalispel, Kootenai, Nez Perce and Yakama—and the people from more than 200 other tribes who live in Spokane gather there each year to create and renew friendships, as they share their songs and dances.

According to Toni Lodge of The NATIVE Project, Spokane County has the fourth largest urban Indian concentration in the United States.

Tribes traditionally came to the river in August to fish, trade, share stories and songs.  The powwow helps people relate to their history and understand life through their cultural symbols.

Organizers made sure it happened this year, promoting it and raising funds for prizes and use of the park, including receiving a lodging tax grant from the City of Spokane and sponsorship, as well as funding from the Spokane Tribe, Kootenai Tribe, the NATIVE Project/NATIVE Health, the American Indian Community Center, Hospice of Spokane, Spokane Community College, Northern Quest, Kauffman and Associates, Avista, several other businesses and about 15 individuals and families.

Beyond celebrating Indian heritage, the powwow is about cultural sharing to break down stereotypes and create connections with the wider community.

In addition to powwows showcasing the culture, the Spokane Falls Northwest Indian Encampment and Powwow includes a tradition of a non-Indian dancing contest. 

Ten women and ten men Indian dancers go into the crowd and select two people each.  They then teach those they recruit how to dance.  Then the “contestants” dance for prizes as part of the non-Indian championship dance.

“It’s a crowd pleaser,” David said.  “Those who come out to dance do it in a fun and honorable way.  Because they feel a connection to the song, the dance, the history and the spirit, and we thank them for doing this.  We have made a connection.”

For information, call 325-5502, or email or