Celebrating friendship through song and dance

Denver Art Museum’s annual powwow takes place virtually Sept. 12

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During the 1918 global pandemic, a new dance was born among Native Americans.

Today called the jingle dress dance, its origins came about when Native American women would put jingles on their dress and dance. As they danced, the jingles would ward off bad spirits and illness, as well as create healing, said Erlidawn Roy, a resident of southwest Denver who is part of the Meskwaki, Ojibwe, Isleta Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo tribes.

Another dance that Coloradoans may be familiar with is the men’s fancy dance. This one came about during the times of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show — roughly 1883-1913. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody asked the Native American dancers who accompanied him on his U.S. and European tours to create a dance that was fast-paced and vibrant, that would wow an audience, Roy said.

These dances are only two of many that people can learn about and witness through a live-streamed experience of the Denver Art Museum’s 31st annual Friendship Powwow.

This year, the virtual Friendship Powwow takes place beginning at 11 a.m. Sept. 12.

“Indigenous arts have been a part of the Denver Art Museum since the 1920s,” said John Lukavic, the Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum. “Denver is on indigenous land (and) the cultures are thriving here in the metro area. The people participating in this powwow are your neighbors.”

The Denver Art Museum’s Friendship Powwow started in 1990, and was the first program the museum implemented once funding started coming in from the voter-approved Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), Lukavic added.

“It’s truly a celebration of friendship between the local Native American community and the Denver Art Museum,” Lukavic said of the powwow. “We’re excited to be able to have the powwow this year.”

With it being a livestreamed event, there are new experiences that people may not be able to experience if they were attending it in person, Lukavic said. One is the exhibition dancers. All of these dancers will be local to Colorado, and the emcee, Denver local Steven LaPoint, will describe the dance style, and perhaps provide a bit history behind each dance, Lukavic said.

An additional, unique experience, will be the dancer interviews — this will be a rare opportunity for people to learn about the dancer’s personal regalia, and how it came to be, Roy said.

This year is her third to serve as a coordinator for the Friendship Powwow.

Something else that people enjoy about attending a powwow is the opportunity to try the traditional food, Roy said. To incorporate that into the virtual powwow, the owners of Denver-metro’s Tocabe — a Native American food restaurant — will be giving a frybread demonstration.

The Friendship Powwow will also include the dance competition. This year, the museum issued a national call for dance submissions in 14 different categories — including teen, adult and golden age — to compete for prize money. There is even a tiny tot category, though they will not be competing for prize money. The top three entries in each dance category will be streamed throughout the powwow event.

Viewers will get to watch the competitors dance in sync, and the winners will be announced at the end of the program — which is expected to last about four hours.

Traditionally, powwows started as ceremonial dances for harvest, spiritual and healing, Roy said. Then, in the 1970s, Native Americans were permitted to perform publicly, in front of spectators, she added.

“That’s the powwow we see today,” Roy said.

Usually, powwows take place every weekend, or every other weekend — if not in Denver metro, then in other nearby cities where dancers would travel, Roy said, who is 33 and has been dancing since she was a toddler. But because of COVID-19, there are not many opportunities for powwows.

But the Denver Art Museum’s Friendship Powwow is one of the few.

“It’s a way to connect,” Roy said, “and share our songs and dances with each other.”

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