American Indian nations from across US celebrate culture at powwow

Danielle Wallace

For many of both the nation and Austin’s American Indian populations, the beginnings of true acceptance have been a long time coming.

“I think there’s a general misconception [about American Indians] … Things have been picked up generally over the years,” said Lois Duncan, executive director of Great Promise for American Indians. “When I was a little girl, my parents tried to shield me, but I still got the comments: ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’”

This Saturday, however, American Indian nations from across the United States will be opening up their collective culture to all members of the community in the largest celebration in the state of its kind for the 19th annual Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival. Dancing, drumming, singing, storytelling, food and a marketplace will mark the traditional event, which serves a place of gathering for American Indian families as well as for those who are not of indigenous descent.

In modern times, Duncan said, most American Indians have moved away from reservations and into urban and suburban populations much like any other minority group. However, gatherings like the event soon to come and visits to the reservation provide a venue to refresh one’s cultural identity and reconnect with family.

“What we’re really trying to do is two-fold: We do it so there’s a way for our families and our youth to get a real flavor for American Indian culture,” she said.

The event hopes to raise awareness of a culture that, though its origins date back to long before the creation of our nation as it is now, is very alive today.

Inside of the Tony Burger Activity Center in the nearby town of Sunset Valley where the festival will be held, the main attraction will be an inter-nation powwow, where American Indian dancers will don the traditional regalia, complete with colorful beadwork, and compete for the grand prize as they dance to the beats and sounds of an assembly of drummers.

“The drum is the heartbeat of the powwow,” Duncan said. “It is very meaningful … It sets the tone, and brings everyone together.”

Spectators are encouraged to watch the dances and, especially, the grand entry where hundreds of dancers flood the arena.

Outdoors, the venue will feature the American Indian Heritage Festival, where visitors will have the opportunity to sample traditional cuisine and explore a marketplace full of around 105 booths that represent as many as 75 nations. The marketplace offers authentic, hand-crafted pieces, from flutes and beyond, often sold by the artists who made them.

While traversing the marketplace, visitors also have the opportunity to hear the performances of some of the four master flute makers as they offer a selection of the products of their handiwork.

The food court, composed of several vendors, with almost every one serving at least one traditional dish, will offer foods to including venison- and elk-on-a-stick, buffalo burgers and frybread, a staple dish of fried dough often eaten with almost every meal. Beans, rice and more are often added to frybread for a heartier treat that has become a favorite with visitors over the years, said Sandy Duncan, vendor coordinator for Great Promise.

“People really enjoy the frybread tacos and traditional Southwest Indian foods,” Duncan said.

Flute playing and storytelling will also take place outdoors. In a culture with a strong oral tradition, these stories are often key parts of the history, beliefs and lessons that nations hold close to their hearts, and are still used today to teach others about the beginnings of American Indian culture and even to convey life lessons to younger generations.

As one of the biggest events for Great Promise, the nonprofit organization that runs it, the event serves as a means of increasing cultural awareness amongst Austinites and beyond, as well as providing an opportunity to fundraise for the group that, above all, plays a major role in providing scholarships and funds to American Indian youth in need of funds to further their educations at universities and more.

“We understand that if there’s going to be a better understanding [about American Indians], we have to give back to the community,” Lois Duncan said. “This event is our yearly gift to Austin.”

WHAT: Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival

WHERE: The Tony Burger Center in Sunset Valley

WHEN: Saturday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

TICKETS: Free

WEBSITE: austinpowwow.org