The 25th annual Keeping The Tradition Pow Wow at Dayton’s SunWatch Indian Village may seem to be all about native cultural history.
Don’t be fooled.
Amid the drums, cries and dances of centuries-old songs, the Native Americans who participate in the event are sharing a living culture that continues to shape communities in the 21st century.
“I’m hoping,” said Guy Jones, president of The Miami Valley Council for Native Americans, “that visitors realize there are Indian people here today who are not some character on a movie screen or a history book or a storybook.
“I want them to get a sense that today, here in Dayton, Ohio, there are Indian people who have a very rich culture and history, and the contributions are here today.”
Celebration with meaning
The Pow Wow is a reunion of sorts for families of Native American heritage. About 50 take part each year, most from the Miami Valley. Others come much farther, including some who travel from reservations in South Dakota, to share the traditions of arts, crafts, food, and sacred dances.
And each year, thousands of people who can’t claim more than a few hundred years of American ancestry gather as well, both to witness and learn from the events. They’ll be treated to competitions in hand drumming, men’s grass dance and women’s shawl and jingle dances, and children’s dances, all performed in full regalia.
At noon and 6 p.m. Saturday and again at noon Sunday, performers will showcase the Grand Entry of traditional flag and victory songs, prayers, and posting of the staff and colors, accompanied by explanations of the meanings behind each element of the show.
“We share this through the emcee,” Jones said, “so the public understands that there’s a reason for everything. For instance, when you see the traditional dancers come in with the two feathers on top of their head, that represents the duality of creation. You can’t have day without night.”
SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Site reconstructs a Native American village built along the banks of the Great Miami River about 800 years ago. The community lasted about 15 to 20 years, possibly in two separate occupations, and was part of the Fort Ancient culture of intensive farmers.
But when the Council formed in 1989, it was inconceivable they would ever hold a pow wow at the village site.
“When SunWatch initially opened (in 1988), we actually protested,” Jones said. He said native descendants felt archaeologists weren’t honoring and preserving native heritage as a living culture, but as prehistoric specimens for scientific preservation.
And despite popular movies of the 1990s helping to shift perceptions of native history, he said, “There’s still a tremendous amount of misinformation and disrespect regarding the culture and spirituality of American Indian people, from sports mascots to people still celebrating Columbus Day.”
So for two decades, the Council’s Pow Wow took place at the former Blue Jacket outdoor drama site in Xenia. But when that company went bankrupt in 2007, SunWatch’s manager, Andrew Sawyer, reached out to the Council.
“SunWatch opened its doors and said, ‘Maybe we can help each other,’ ” Jones remembered. “Sawyer was taking bold steps and getting away from the old-school ideals of preservation, seeing we had a culture that’s still alive today, and that changed things.”
Jones said some native support was lost, feeling that the Council had sold out by agreeing to work with SunWatch. But other support, he said, has been gained.
“Some Americans have a sense of guilt,” Jones said. “I say, we can’t change the past. We can only live for the future and learn the history, so we make certain we don’t repeat history.”
How to go
WHAT: 25th annual Keeping the Tradition Pow Wow
WHERE: SunWatch, 2301 West River Road, Dayton
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. today, 11 am to 5 p.m. Sunday.
COST: $8 adults, $5 seniors and ages 6-16, free 5 and under. Weekend passes are $15, $9.
MORE INFO: www.sunwatch.org, (937) 268-8199
In August, SunWatch will host its annual Native Flute Gathering weekend featuring music performances, traditional storytelling and workshops.
Historical re-enactments of first contact between Native Americans and colonial traders are featured during October’s Cultures in Contact reenactment weekend.