Resilience through dance, drum, craft: talking Indigenous Peoples’ Day Pow Wow with event organizers

Beverly Pan/Staff

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Established 25 years ago, Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Pow Wow annually speaks to the resounding endurance of Bay Area Native Americans in the wake of colonization. This year, 525 years after Columbus’ arrival to the New World, the gathering promises a welcoming coming together rich in Native American culture, as expressed largely through artistic means. On Saturday, Oct. 14, Pow Wow attendees will experience native dance, music, food and artisan vendor products.

Described by Pow Wow coordinator Gino Barichello in an interview as a “social gathering,” the Pow Wow proves communal by nature. The celebration offers a space for both native and non-native peoples of Berkeley to come together in celebration and recognition of an array of tribal customs. This gathering is particularly significant in that it allows for the congregation of native peoples who, spread about the Bay Area, may otherwise rarely get to see one another.

While Berkeley broke barriers a quarter-century ago in preceding all other American cities by replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, its Pow Wow was not the first of its kind. These intertribal gatherings, in fact, exist all throughout the United States, ranging in tone. Some may celebrate the life of a deceased community member, while another may welcome a young person into the group.

Berkeley’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day Pow Wow defines itself largely by way of its emphasis on inclusivity.

“(Pow Wows) are the most important situation where non-Indian people can connect with native culture,” said John Curl, founding member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Day Committee in an interview with The Daily Californian. While many non-Native individuals might live in close proximity to indigenous peoples, modern native customs often remain unrecognized. At the same time, for many non-Native Americans, the indigenous presence can feel distant, leading to the portrayal of such individuals as peoples of the past.

As Barichello explains, “Our particular pow wow we’ve set up (is meant to) invite the entire community to be an educational vehicle, to let non-Native folks know we’re still here, we’re still in the urban setting, and we’re still practicing our ways and our songs and our dances.”

The Berkeley Pow Wow speaks to these foundational doctrines by simultaneously working to remain true to the cultures it represents while also proving accessible to the non-Native Pow Wow-goer. In accordance with such values, vendor-coordinator Hallie Frazer prioritizes the authenticity of vendors’ products when inviting sellers to the event.

“She wants to bring in traditional Native artisans to showcase their artwork, but also just kind of explaining what goes into the making of the art,” explained Barichello.

In this fashion, the goods — ranging from turquoise to jewelry to rug-weaving — serve as a vehicle for cultural communication.

The Pow Wow also includes indigenous drumming and dance, each defined largely by their native southern or northern roots. This year, three primary drums will accompany the dancing: a centralized drum and two representing the northern and southern tribes. Dancers similarly assert themselves as northern or southern by virtue of their attire and form of dance.

The dancing itself differs greatly in nature, ranging from presentational indigenous performances to all-inclusive sessions. Northern and southern committees evaluate the former based on authenticity to their respective culture with regard to dress, accessories and style.    

The native dancers also vary in competitive intensity. Many younger members of the Pow Wow community find time to rehearse outside of their daily schedules. Other dancers come together for weekly Pow Wow practice, where attendees can learn about proper Pow Wow adornment and dress. In locations with lower densities of indigenous populations, family members may take it upon themselves to instruct young Pow Wow practitioners.

Still other dancers engage with the gatherings by “full-time traveling around the country, from Pow Wow to Pow Wow … Literally every week of the year,” according to Curl. Some of the events offer prize money in acknowledgement of winning dancers as well as the incentive of social recognition. For many Pow Wow-goers, however, dancing serves as a social affair, practiced only on occasion.

Barichello adds that participation in ceremonies specific to one’s tribe remains valuable. Barichello himself participated in traditional Southeastern stomp-dancing while growing up in Oklahoma. Having come of age on the tribal lands of the Mvskoke natives of his heritage, the coordinator understands the importance of remaining “grounded … (and) connected to the tribe” during his youth.  

The impact of the community-centered and cultural awareness promoted by the Pow Wow, however, extends beyond strictly social realms; the event also speaks to the essential nature of traditional indigenous ecological knowledge.

“Native people know how to live in sustainable ways on this planet, and … ‘Western society’ … really has hit a dead end,” said Curl.“It’s only through rediscovering how to live in traditional indigenous ways that any of us are going to survive, not only in the Americas and what we call the United States now, but all over the planet. … Indigenous values and indigenous culture are really central to the future of human society on this planet.”

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].