At a powwow, the drum is the heart of the festival. It’s a steady, metronomic beat that guides dancers’ feet and sends a collective pulse to all tribes in attendance.
At the 25th annual Austin Powwow this Saturday, tribes from all over the country will come together to celebrate their customs and history. Last year, 83 of the country’s 562 tribes participated in the festivities, making it the largest single-day powwow in the country.
Nan Blassingame, the volunteer coordinator at Great Promise for American Indians, said despite their differing tribal heritages, the Native Americans that attend the powwow are united by their common indigeneity.
“We may come from many different tribes, but on one day every year, we make a new nation,” Blassingame said. “On the day of the powwow, it’s like we’re all one tribe.”
Unity is central to the tradition of powwows, which are historically intertribal meetings that stress the importance of belonging, community and generosity.
“They’re meant to bring people together from different tribal nations,” said anthropology professor Pauline Strong. “It’s about creating a positive atmosphere.”
The Austin Powwow is the largest event organized by Great Promise, a nonprofit that provides a number of other cultural resources to Austin’s American Indian population, including a scholarship program, monthly culture nights and craft workshops.
The event provides opportunities for cultural exchange through a multi-category dance competition, a food court featuring traditional dishes and a stage for storytelling, flute-playing and other cultural displays.
Each dance a powwow-goer sees is a one-of-a-kind experience. The competition dances generally aren’t rehearsed but instead are made up by the dancers in the moment so that each one is a unique piece of art.
Sandy Duncan, the vendor coordinator at Great Promise, doesn’t want powwow attendees to trivialize the cultural events by calling them performances. According to him, doing so would be denying the fact that American Indian culture continues to thrive.
“You’re not going to a performance or a movie,” Duncan said. “You’re going to see traditional American Indian dancing. People won’t rehearse, because it’s not as if we’ve got a show at six and a matinee on Sunday.”
Instead, Duncan wants attendees to view the powwow as a cultural exchange that is shared between peoples.
Blassingame, a member of the Southern Cheyenne tribe, is a dancer and artist who creates dresses and other Native American regalia. When Blassingame dances “Jingle,” her favorite category of traditional dance, she is captivated by the beautiful sound of hundreds of metal tassels sewn to the skirt of the dress, for which the dance is named.
“It sounds like rain — beautiful and calming,” Blassingame said. “The jingle dress is a medicine dress, a healing dress. When you’re out there, you might pray for those who can’t dance or those that wish they could still dance because they’re sick or old.”
For Blassingame, the joy of dancing runs deeper than the prospect of winning prize money — it’s something spiritual.
“It’s just a really good feeling, like you’re in the clouds,” Blassingame said. “I’m really kind of shy, but when I’m out there dancing, I’m not thinking about that.”
25th Annual Austin Powwow
- Saturday, Nov. 5, 9 a.m.-10 p.m.
- Travis County Expo Center
- 7311 Decker Lane
- Admission: $5