At a powwow earlier this month in Portland, Ed Wulf appeared in full regalia to dance. At a powwow this weekend in Vancouver, he’ll be working behind the scenes.
For the past 15 years or so, the 61-year-old Vancouver resident has served as arena director for the annual powwow organized by the Native American Parent Association of Southwest Washington. That makes him the man in charge.
The master of ceremonies, Bob Tom, serves as the voice of the powwow. He announces each dance and tells jokes to fill the time in between. But it’s the arena director who tells the drummers what to sing and the dancers when to take the floor, and that’s where Wulf comes in.
“My job is to make sure everything goes smooth,” Wulf said. “If problems arise, I can take care of it.”
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. Outside the arena, vendors sell traditional crafts and foods.
At 1 and 6 p.m., elders and veterans carrying flags lead grand entry parades. Everybody stands to show respect during these solemn processions.
In the grand entry, two head dancers lead the other dancers. This year’s female head dancer is 7-year-old Jetori James-Slater of Portland, a member of the Yakama Nation, Nisqually and Cowlitz tribes. The male head dancer is 14-year-old Nacoma Liebelt of Willamina, Ore., a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde.
“It’s a big honor to be head dancer,” said the powwow’s organizer, Dave Jollie of Ridgefield.
Dancers throughout the day show off diverse styles — including jingle, fancy and traditional dance — as drummers sing and provide the beat. When the emcee announces an intertribal dance, anyone — including audience members — can take the floor.
“Dance however the drumbeat makes you feel,” Jollie said.
He’s a leader in the Native American Parent Association, which has hosted the annual event for decades as a way to honor Native culture and introduce it to the general public.
A powwow is both a celebration and a sacred event where American Indians gather to dance, sing, drum and share food. Although American Indians have had ceremonial gatherings for centuries, the contemporary powwow dates to the late 19th century when the U.S. government seized land from tribes across the Great Plains. Forced to move, tribes began interacting more and sought solidarity through powwows. Then, after World War I and II, powwows began focusing on honoring American Indians who served in the military.
That’s why Saturday’s powwow will begin with songs honoring the flag and veterans, as well as introduction of all veterans present by name. Feathers in dancers’ regalia symbolize veterans. If one falls off, Wulf will halt the proceedings to perform a ceremony.
“When a feather falls on the ground, that is a fallen veteran,” Wulf said. “The whole powwow stops, and we take care of that veteran.”
Wulf’s day job is in Wilsonville, Ore., where he works early morning shifts moving shipping trailers. He said he found his way back to his heritage about three decades ago, around the time he moved to Vancouver from Portland.
“My mother passed away when I was 8. She was the tribal connection,” said Wulf, who traces his ancestry to Yupik and Athabascan tribes of Alaska. “I grew up urban. I didn’t have help with being Native and everything else.”
His return to his roots went hand-in-hand with getting sober. He struggled with alcohol but received help from the Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest Inc. in Portland. The nonprofit substance-use treatment center is Indian-owned and -operated.
Wulf said he hasn’t had a drink in 29 years. He’s been performing men’s traditional dance for 28 years.
The signature regalia of men’s traditional dance is a fan of eagle feathers at the dancer’s waist. The style evokes war and hunting parties returning to the village to dance the story of battles and tracking prey.
Although Wulf feels honored by his job as arena director, he would like to pass the role on to the younger generation.
“The biggest thing I want is to get the youth involved,” Wulf said. “Today’s society is not very good to our youth. We’ve got drugs and alcohol and shootings. It’s just a chaotic world out there that’s always poking at them and trying to lead them astray. As elders, we represent our people to the best of our ability, to show there is a better way to live life.”