Mia Bennett, a 13-year-old Shahala Middle School student, said growing up Yakama in Vancouver sometimes means educating her school friends and teachers about her “other” identity.
“Sometimes I hang out with friends at school who don’t know anything about it,” said Mia, who will be one of three head dancers at a powwow Saturday at Clark College. “When I invite them to the powwow they say, ‘Powwow, what’s that?’ And I have to explain what it is.”
The answer: A powwow is a gathering of tribes for dancing, socializing and honoring traditions. It’s a practice that began on the Great Plains circa 1900, when white America was on the march and Native Americans were seeking solidarity in retreat.
Today’s powwows continue as noisy, friendly community celebrations focused on dancing and drumming, with plenty of room around the edges for mingling, browsing craft booths and sampling fry bread.
During Saturday’s free event, visitors can perch in the bleachers at Clark College’s O’Connell Sports Center and come and go as they please between noon and 10 p.m. Powwows are open to all and pleasantly informal, except for the two Grand Entry parades led by elders and veterans carrying flags. Everybody stands to show respect during these solemn processions, which are set for 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
IF YOU GO
What: Native American Parent Association of Southwest Washington’s Annual Traditional Pow Wow
When: Noon-10 p.m. Saturday
Grand entry parades: 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Where: Clark College’s O’Connell Sports Center, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way, Vancouver
DID YOU KNOW?
According to the U.S. Census there were just under 3,000 Native Americans in Clark County in 2019.
In the 2018-2019 school year, there were 287 American Indian or Alaskan students in Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground public schools, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The gathering marks the return of what had been an annual event organized by the Native American Parent Association of Southwest Washington before the pandemic. Along with Mia, Union High School junior Destany Reeves-Robinson and Walla Walla High School freshman Elijah Bauer will serve as head dancers.
“The main goal of a powwow is to bring as many dancers as possible and to bring good spirits to everyone that attends,” said Mia’s aunt, dancer Aiyanna Bennett, who’s also a Yakama culture and dance instructor.
“Normally we see our families and our communities at powwows, especially in summer,” Mia said. “For two years we’ve all been separate.”
Mia, an eighth-grader who hopes to become a veterinarian, has been dancing at powwows ever since she could walk. Even so, she said she’s a little stunned to be selected as a lead dancer after two pandemic years off.
“It means a lot of responsibility to set a good example,” Bennett said.
Mia said she’s eager to show off her moves in the style called women’s fancy dancing.
“It’s competitive and it’s fast,” she said.
“Women created this dance to compete and get in the spotlight with the men,” Aiyanna Bennett said. “Women were more on the sidelines at powwows while the men were more in the middle.”
Tribal culture is transmitted largely face to face. That made it challenging to pass along and keep alive even before the pandemic brought forced isolation.
“It’s been very hard as the years go by, because our traditions are not written down in a book,” Aiyanna Bennett said. “They’re strictly taught from family member to family member. You get taught hands-on.”
Keeping families strong and connected is a crucial value for tribal societies whose fabric was torn within living memory.
Family matriarch Bessie Bennett, Aiyanna’s grandmother and Mia’s great-grandmother, was ripped from her Yakama family and placed in one of those notorious Indian boarding schools that “re-educated” tribal children.
“When she came back, after being away for so long, she had to relearn her own heritage,” Aiyanna Bennett said.
“She didn’t talk about it much, but she ran away from that school,” said Orpha Bennett, Bessie’s daughter and Aiyanna’s mother. Convinced she wasn’t “book smart,” Bessie nonetheless taught herself to read and write but never taught her descendants her original Yakama language, Orpha Bennett said.
“She didn’t want to teach us our language because it had been beaten out of her,” Orpha Bennett said.
All that Bessie lost has been rebuilt a little more by each succeeding generation, Aiyanna Bennett said.
“My grandmother was a good source of some things, but she didn’t dance,” she said. “My mom danced a little when she was younger; then as she got older, she lost track for a while. I had to start from scratch.”
The whole family has now returned to dancing and embraces powwows as powerful social occasions, Aiyanna Bennett said. Until the pandemic stopped her, Aiyanna was teaching dance and culture classes at local schools and working with Painted Sky North Star, a Portland dance company that blends traditional and modern styles. She’s looking forward to reviving those educational and cultural activities, she said.
Destany Reeves-Robinson, 17, was just a few months old when the Cathlapotle Plank House opened in 2005 at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The building is not a historical reproduction but a real Chinook building, as well as an emblem of continued tribal presence, said Sam Robinson, Destany’s grandfather. He lives in Vancouver and serves as vice chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation.
All her life, Destany has accompanied her well-known grandfather as he attends public events with distinctive cone-shaped hat, drum and tribal songs.
“It’s always been this way,” she said. “I’ve been bound to his hip ever since I was walking.”
But Sam Robinson grew up not knowing much about his tribal roots, which he embraced later in life, he said. His own daughter, Cassandra, didn’t get the deep Chinook education that his granddaughter has enjoyed.
“We missed a generation there and now we’re trying to bring it all back,” he said.
Now, Destany aspires to become a teacher, and she isn’t shy about schooling her own teachers in the history, culture and continued existence of the Chinook and other Native peoples in America.
“There are a lot of stereotypes and a lot of misinformation,” Destany said.
For example, it’s worth noting that while powwows have gone national, they weren’t historically practiced by tribes in this area.
“The people of the Columbia River … we were doing our own thing with potlatches and large gatherings like that. Historically, we are not powwow people,” Sam Robinson said. “But Destany and I are proud of our Chinookan ways, and we are always glad to welcome people from other tribes into Chinook country.”
Grant and gift
Talking about the return of the powwow just about brings organizer Dave Jollie to tears.
Jollie’s father was an enrolled member of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, but he grew up a typical white guy in Clark County, he said. He remains better at dancing to rock ’n’ roll than to Indian drums, he joked.
“I wasn’t raised with any of this,” Jollie said.
The closest he came was when his father took him to powwows at Delta Park in Portland.
“I love the sound of that drum,” he said. “The Natives call that the heartbeat of America. The animals and the trees gave their lives to make that sound.”
About a dozen years ago, Jollie befriended Native parents who patronized his family’s (now closed) restaurant near the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. They told him about the Native American Parents Association of Southwest Washington and its efforts to keep tribal education alive for the next generation. Jollie felt called to dive in.
“The culture is so down to earth, so humbling,” he said. “I’ve learned a lot over the last 12 years of being involved.”
One hard fact he’s learned, he said, is that cultural and educational programs for Native youth depend on dollars that dried up years ago.
Evergreen Public Schools, which had managed federal funds for extracurricular programming and support for Native American students in three local districts — Evergreen, Vancouver and Battle Ground — stopped seeking that money after the 2016-2017 school year.
The final grant was for $58,000 under Title VI of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which addresses the educational needs of American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Alaskan Native students. Some of that money covered annual powwows in Clark County.
“It left us without support and without access to all those Native children because we didn’t know who they were and couldn’t reach out to them,” Sam Robinson said. “Since then, we haven’t been able to bring that younger generation in and create the connections and friendships that are so important.”
After two-plus years of applying, re-applying and struggling with red tape, the Native American Parents Association received a $25,000 grant from ilani to keep the spring powwow alive.
It normally takes five or six months to plan a powwow, but this one came together in about a month, Jollie said. And while it normally costs thousands of dollars to rent a facility, the Clark College Community Wide Diversity Committee paid the whole $3,500 tab for use of O’Connell Sports Center.
Upon hearing that good news, “I cried like a baby,” Jollie said. His group passed the gift along by paying for vendor permits, he said.
While Jollie is thrilled to bring the powwow back, he said, the Native American Parent Association that drives it has never been closer to dwindling away completely.
“Our numbers have gotten very small,” he said. “We used to have pretty big programs with a lot of kids. But now we’re down to eight or 10 parents. It’s always the same nucleus of a few people and I am wondering, when the kids age out, can we keep this going?”