April 3, 2020

Online powwows draw thousands of viewers

Native American dancing celebrates life at a distance

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Zak Hoops, 6, couldn’t understand why the powwows he typically attends and where he performs the grass dance were canceled.

His mother, Toma Campbell, tried to explain coronavirus and why it was important to cancel those events. But she told him about another opportunity for him to share his talents.

She had recently discovered a Facebook group called the Social Distance Powwow, where people were sharing photos and videos of themselves dancing in their regalia. Zak jumped at the opportunity.

Zak Hoops, a member of the Assiniboine Tribe of Fort Belknap, Montana, dances at the Milk River Indian Days held July 27, 2019, in Fort Belknap. Photo by Randy Perez.

He donned his grass dance regalia, and his mother recorded him performing a ground blessing on the frozen, snow-covered ground of their home in Fort Belknap, Montana. As of Sunday evening, the video Campbell posted of her son on the Facebook page had 31,000 shares and 19,000 likes.

“I never, ever expected anything of that magnitude,” Campbell said. "It’s just nice to know that Zak brought a lot of joy to people all over the world.”

Zak Hoops shows a blanket he won at the Poplar Indian Days powwow. Photo by Toma Campbell.

The Social Distance Powwow Facebook group, just a few weeks old, already has more than 120,000 members.

Thousands of people have posted photos and videos of themselves and loved ones dancing, singing with drums and wearing Native American regalia. Children can be seen in regalia dancing in their backyards and in their homes, and adults wearing no regalia can be seen dancing in their offices. One man shared a video of himself performing the hoop dance on a basketball court on Arizona’s Gila River Indian Reservation.

The first powwow was held on the weekend of March 21-22. The second was held this past weekend and focused on Native storytelling.

One man shared a story about a young Native man who went on his first war party but was killed by an enemy tribe. His parents cut off their hair and fingers in grief. One night his father dreamed of meeting up with his son.

He found that his son hadn’t been allowed to pass into the spirit world because his family was grieving for him too much. So when his father woke up, he told his wife it was time to let their son’s spirit go.

“For everybody who’s losing their loved ones to the coronavirus or to natural causes, I really hope this video may comfort you,” the young man who posted the video said. “We know as Indian people, we know this as the circle of life.”

Some posts on the page have earned thousands of “likes” and re-shares. Some have even earned their subjects fame beyond Facebook. Zak Hoops’ performance was featured by a Montana television station, which ran a story about the boy’s video during the sports segment of its March 24 nightly broadcast.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a powwow dancer get highlighted on the evening sports,” said Whitney Rencountre, a Crow Creek Sioux tribal citizen and one of the three administrators for the Social Distance Powwow page.

He said the pandemic’s impact on competitive sports has opened up opportunities for other athletic practices to be recognized by the media.

“We don’t ever think of powwow dancing as a sport, but powwow dancers have to stay in shape, too,” he said.

Dan Simonds, a citizen of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, created the Social Distance Powoww page after seeing the pain that news of the coronavirus pandemic was causing in Indian Country.

Simonds began limiting his exposure to news about the coronavirus, as well as to social media. But he decided people needed something positive to lift their spirits.

“This idea just came in my head, and it’s not my idea,” he said. “Anything that you see in life in the world is through Creator. I was just given this idea, and that’s how it took off.”

So the couple began limiting their exposure to news about the coronavirus, as well as to social media. But Simonds decided they needed something positive to lift their spirits.

Dan Simonds, member of the Mashantucket Pequot Nation, created the Social Distance Powwow group on Facebook. Photo by Zane Simonds, 10, Crow Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Nation.

“This idea just came in my head, and it’s not my idea,” he said. “Anything that you see in life in the world is through Creator. I was just given this idea, and that’s how it took off.”

The Social Distance Powwow group has also become a place for people to show their support for the fight to stop the coronavirus outbreak and efforts to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.

A young Navajo nurse posted a photo of her and a colleague wearing surgical masks with cartoon images on them, writing, “This is the only outfit I’ll be wearing until we eventually run out of it.”

An artist shared a painting depicting a Native grandmother watching over a young nurse crouching on the ground with her head in her hand.

And one video showed a young woman in regalia dancing and signing the words of the Lord’s Prayer to music, a performance she dedicated to her great aunt, who she said had recently died from the coronavirus.

Others have shared their poetry. Some have even begun sharing comedy sketches, such as a faux news report about the coronavirus and a man who pretended to share a sacred song that he said he shouldn’t be sharing (it was actually an Eagles’ cover).

Videos and photos are being posted from people around the world, including from indigenous peoples such as the First Nations people of Canada and the Mayans of Central America.

Michelle Bennett, whose Mi’kmaq name is Mlki E’pit (Resilient Woman), lives in St. George’s, Newfoundland, on Canada’s east coast.

Last week, she shared a video of herself performing a women’s traditional dance in a community center in St. George’s.

I wanted to share my prayers with all of Turtle Island,” she said. “You can feel the vibrations in the air from it. It’s so healing.”

And many people have begun posting their arts and crafts for sale.

Simonds said he hopes the page will allow vendors, like himself, who earn money from selling arts, crafts and other souvenirs, to recoup some of the revenue they have lost because of canceled powwows and Native conferences.

Yvette Leecy, 57, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs of Oregon, said she has been able to sell nearly 20 vests made from colorful Pendleton wool, a popular craft material for Native artisans, on the Social Distance Powwow page.

Leecy, who oversees timber sales for her tribe’s forest department, said the page allows people to connect through shared interests and beliefs and overcome the fear caused by a public health crisis.

Yvette Leecy, member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, performed a healing dance with her granddaughters. Photo by Yvette Leecy.

“It’s a healthy connection,” she said. “Instead of building fear, we’re building faith.”

On Saturday evening, she and her two granddaughters performed a healing dance in her backyard around a fire, and Leecy shared a video of the dance on the Social Distance Powwow page.

“We’re going to do our social dance for healing, for our lands, for our people, for the sick, for the people that can’t dance,” Leecy said before starting the dance. “We hope that this helps everybody.”

About the author

Kevin Abourezk

Kevin Abourezk serves as managing editor for Indianz.com, a Native American news website. He has spent 21 years as a professional journalist, including 18 years as a reporter and editor for the Lincoln Journal Star. He is an enrolled citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and a married father of five children. He lives and works in Lincoln, Nebraska. Indianz.com is owned and operated by Ho-Chunk Inc., the economic development corporation for the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska.