Native Americans from all over North America attended the 10th annual UC Irvine Pow Wow at the Newport Beach Radisson Hotel to celebrate Native culture and tradition last Saturday. Poor weather prompted student planners of UCI’s American Indian Student Association (AISA) to move the event from its traditional location in Aldrich Park to a small poolside pavilion at the Radisson.
Inside the pavilion, drummers beat out melodies and people in traditional native regalia danced in Southern and Northern styles. Competitions were held to find the best dancers in different genres and age groups. In an adjacent conference room, vendors had set up booths offering traditional handmade crafts and jewelry for purchase.
“We had a little bit of trouble with vendors because obviously it was a little bit of a shock moving here,” said fourth-year criminology major D’Amore Montgomery. “It’s so small and we wanted to be out in the open but other than that it’s worked out well and now we don’t have to worry about all these dark clouds overhead.”
Montgomery is a member of the Choctaw nation and worked with other members of the American Indian Student Association to organize the event. According to Montgomery, preparations for the Pow Wow began months ago in mid-August.
The American Indian Student Association holds a number of events like the Pow Wow each year to raise awareness and provide education about Native American culture. Cheyenne Reynoso, a fourth-year anthropology student at UCI, believes that the Pow Wow helps to combat cultural ignorance in the general populace. As a Native American, she participates in AISA in order to learn about her own culture and heritage.
“We’re trying to express who we are,” she said, “When I was growing up I wasn’t around a lot of other Natives and I felt very confused sometimes because a lot of teachers would tell me that ‘you don’t exist anymore’ because that’s what some people learned, that we’re not around anymore. The common misconception that there aren’t any Natives anymore can be very damaging for people who do represent that truth.”
“We’re thousands of different cultures and a lot of times it gets reduced just down to one thing so it’s important to show some diversity, not just to someone who doesn’t know, who is ignorant of all that, but to us as well […] that image can confine even our youth that maybe are still trying to learn about themselves, that they can be different from the person they see in western movies.”
In the pavilion, chairs had been set up amphitheater style around a central stage. In a corner, several men sang and beat large leather drums while groups demonstrated various tribal dances on the main stage. Dancers were broken up into two rough categories: Southern style dancers and drummers from the American South performed and competed separately from Northern style dance and drum from nations in the Midwest. Specific performances included bird singing, Azteca dancers and gourd dancing, among others. Dancers within each category were a number of genres of traditional dance, and dancers competed within each genre for cash prizes. Dancers wore traditional ceremonial clothing called regalia.
Mario Sanchez, a Tejon Indian from Bakersfield, California, traveled the distance on Saturday to see his cousin Samuel Sierra featured as the head boy dancer at the Pow Wow. The handmade regalia he wore traced back 13 years; paired with a single-feather headdress and ankle bells, the clothes were pale blue and adorned with patterns of black, red and yellow.
“All my beadwork is put together by my son,” Sanchez said. “And all it is, is Mountain design. The blue is the sky and the red, yellow, and black is the mountain. When the bells ring, it chases away wickedness.”
According to Sanchez, who has been attending Pow Wows and participating in dance competitions for 15 years, what drives him to come back each year is the sense of community and the spirituality of tribal dance.
“Today is a winner-take-all contest, but me personally, I could care less about the money but love the recognition,” Sanchez said. “If you win first, or second, or third prize then people will remember that. They don’t care about the money. I have a job but this is for fun and it’s a status thing. I don’t care about the money. Today I’m [going to] go home after dinner break because I don’t care about who wins. It’s about the feeling you get with the drums when you’re dancing. It’s hard to describe; the drum is our grandfather, it’s the heartbeat of Native Americans. It’s like your heartbeat and so when you dance you keep time with your heartbeat and it wakens up your spirit. It’s a really good feeling.”
The Aejachemen nation, which has historically resided in most of Orange County, including Irvine, was the host tribe for the event. Though the nation does not participate in tribal dance, many tribesmen help plan cultural events like the Pow Wow.
“The Pow Wow is a time for Indian people to get together and have a good time,” said Anthony Rivera, tribal chairman of the Aejachemen nation. “They like to do traditional Pow Wow dancing. We don’t do Pow Wow dancing because it’s not part of our culture. But we all enjoy being together and making new friends and having a good time.”