The first Indigenous Peoples Day Pow
The City Council resolution of
1991 that had set us up as the Berkeley Resistance 500 Task Force,
included a sunset clause that our mission would be completed at the end
of 1992. So after the first annual celebration, we changed our name to
the Indigenous Peoples Day Committee. We remained the same core group,
but now we were autonomous again.
The main agenda topics of our first meeting after October 12, 1992,
evaluate our events of the year, and figure out what we wanted to do
for the second Indigenous Peoples Day in 1993. This was a critical
We needed both the Berkeley community and also the larger Bay Area
Native community (centered in many ways around Intertribal Friendship
House in Oakland) to embrace Indigenous Peoples Day for the long run,
as an annual celebration, if we were to really succeed.
I think it was Millie Ketcheshawno, one of our founders, who proposed
that instead of
another chasky-like cultural procession along Shattuck Avenue, we
put on a pow wow in Civic Center Park. Millie had the universal respect
of our group. One of the first activists on Alcatraz back in 1969, the
first woman director of Intertribal Friendship House, and a future
filmmaker, she was Muscogee, from Oklahoma, and had come to the Bay
Area in the 1950s on the BIA's Relocation Program. She was also one of
the nicest people you'd ever want to meet, knew how to speak her mind
openly, and could be as tough as she needed to be.
Today, over two decades later, I'm not entirely certain that the idea
of the pow wow was originally Millie's. I recall the meeting very
vividly, and how the entire committee almost immediately made the idea
its own. If Millie hadn't embraced the idea, it wouldn't have happened.
The credit should properly given to the group as a whole, and Millie
was at the group's core.
As to myself, I’d actually never been to a pow wow, and knew almost
Whether or not it was her original idea, Millie led us into the first
pow wow. In her wisdom, she understood
that if our life-affirming project of Indigenous Peoples Day was to
survive, we needed to focus on positive energies, to look to the
present and future, and not let our energies be drowned by the
destructive forces of the past.
Lee Sprague took over from Dennis Jennings as coordinator. We asked
Dennis to be our first Headman Dancer, and Millie to be our first
With the leadership of Lee, Dennis, Millie, and others, the rest of the
Head Staff of our first pow wow took shape. Our first MC was Roy
Hopkins (Arikara); Arena Director: Les Hara (Ponca). Head Gourd
Dancer: Phil Collins (Paiute). Host Drums: Northern — All Nations;
Southern — Red Hawk. Head Teen Boy: Rencho Wahpehpah (Chippewa/Sac
Fox/Kickapoo); Head Teen Girl: Hope Simple (Sioux).
The pow wow circle in
ML King, Jr. Civic Center Park, Berkeley
The morning would begin, as the previous year, with a sunrise ceremony
at the waterfront.
Events in the park would start at 10 am, with an invocation by Diane
Bowers of the Yurok Nation, part of our successful campaign for a
sister community relationship between Berkeley and the Yurok tribe. She
would be followed by exhibition dancers: first the Yuroks, then
Aztec dancers, Mayan deer dancers by Grupo Maya Kusamej Junan, Hintel
Pomo dancers. At noon would be Gourd dancing. The Grand Entry would
take place at 1 pm, followed by welcoming words by Mayor Loni
Hancock, Councilmember Nancy Skinner, and Yurok representative Diane
Bowers. The rest of the afternoon would be Contest dancing, intertribal
dancing, round dancing, and guest speakers. After the announcement of
the Contest Dance winners, the pow wow would end with a Victory/Flag
We would make tee shirts with the turtle logo on the front. Raffle
include a Pendleton blanket for first prise and a handmade star quilt
for second prize.
After the pow wow would would stage a turkey feast, and
give dinner to everyone in the park.
We would make 30-foot banner, which we would hang
across Shattuck Avenue, the central downtown street, announcing
Indigenous Peoples Day to the community.
We would also sponser Watershed,
a drama written by Steve Most, about the Yuroks and the Salmon War of
1978, which would be performed for three days before the pow wow at the
Little Berkeley Theater. Performers included Jack Kohler (Yurok/) as
the lead, and Nanette Deetz (Dakota/Cherokee/German), who both also
visited classrooms in Berkeley High School sharing Native culture.
On the day after the pow wow, on Sunday, we would cosponsor a World
Culture Concert in Honor of Indigenous Peoples Day at Peoples' Park
(across town closer to the university). Performers would include All
Nations Drum, Aztlan Nation (rap), Bozone (reggae), Ogi Johnson (flute)
Karumata (Andean), WithOut Reservation (rap). Lee Sprague would speak.
Like the pow wow, there would be vendors and food booths. Cosponsors of
the World Culture Concert would be the Ecology Center/Farmers Market,
Racism, and Children's Light.
When we transformed from Resistance 500 into the Indigenous
Peoples Day Committee, we also changed our logo. At that time we didn't
yet have permission of the 1990 Encuentro artist to use the condor and
eagle. So our first logo as the IPDC was the Turtle Island turtle with
a map of the Americas of its shell, which had been used as a logo by
the Bay Area Regional Indian Alliance (BARIA), and which we received
permission to use. By the next year we got permission to use the condor
and eagle, so we ultimately combined the two designs into the logo that
we continue to use today, over two decades later.
The turtle island logo and the
eagle-condor symbol remind us of our place in the larger
cultural renewal of Native people, and the gifts they bring of a
consciousness that is deeply changing a world in desperate need of
change. Each Indigenous Peoples
Day Pow Wow contributes to that cultural renewal, and increasingly does
its small part. Learning how to live in indigenous ways may not come
easy to many people of European backgrounds, emerging from a long
history of glorifying aggressive domination. But every year the
pow wow brings the power of Native people to Berkeley, increasingly
world with a living philosophy of peace, community, and sustainability.
When I lived in the Southwest between 1966 and 1971, pow wow's weren't
big events, or at least I didn't connect with them. I attended a Ute
sundance, ceremonies at Taos and other Pueblos, and for a year I worked
on the To’Hajiilee Navajo (Diné) reservation, where I attended a
Yeibichei and many other Navajo healing ceremonies. Since I'd been in
California, I'd been to a Miwok Big Time. But never a pow wow.
I now began to learn something about pow wows, and why they were so
relevant to what we were doing.
While their roots are very old, they are also new. They only
widespread as part of the rejuvenation and resurgence of Native culture
in the 1970s after the Alcatraz occupation. They became a cultural
meeting place for people of many tribes and Native nations, a strong
expression of the new intertribal identity that Native people were
forging in that era. Pow wows also became a place where Native people
welcome non-Natives, where all people of good will can come together,
dance together, socialize, and participate in Indigenous culture. Where
nonNatives can interact with Native people and get to know them. Pow
wows include dancing competitions, with prize money, and an Indian
market with Native food and crafts.
We planned the Berkeley Pow Wow for just one day, but some of the
biggest ones last a full week.
of the Pow Wow
Many tribes trace pow wows
back to their own periodic gatherings, large traditional celebratory
feasts, usually after the fall harvest. The oldest continuous annual
pow wow today is probably the Quapaw, now in its 138th year in
Oklahoma. The term pow wow comes from an Algonquian word for a
gathering of people, which began to be used in Oklahoma around 1900.
Diverse tribes have different stories about the origin of pow wow
dancing. There are distinct northern and southern traditions. One
commonly told origin story among southern tribes holds that the first
pow wow dance was the Iruska, a dance of the Pawnee, taught to a man
named Crow Feather by a group of spiritual beings who immersed their
hands into boiling water and fire. Iruska means "they are inside the
fire," but is often translated as "warrior." The dance is usually known
today as the Warrior or Straight Dance. The beings held Crow Feather
over hot coals, and after he survived, they taught him songs and the
dance, and told him to teach them to the people. Then the beings turned
into birds and animals and left. On a second night they returned and
repeated the ceremony. At the end, one spiritual being stayed behind
and taught Crow Feather to make many of the symbolic items worn today
by male pow wow dancers. His “crow belt” is today the back bustle worn
by Fancy dancers. His “roach headdress,” made from deer and porcupine
hair, represents the fire ordeal: an eagle feather in a deer shoulder
blade represents the man standing in the center of the fire; the bone
also represents the medicine given to him.
In the early twentieth century the dance spread out of Oklahoma through
the Great Plains north to Canada. Dance societies were formed in over
thirty Plains tribes, and through the dance former enemies made peace.
Pow wows gained momentum after World War II, when they were held as
local honoring ceremonies for returning Indian veterans. In the
mid-1950s many Native people began traveling between communities,
dancing in pow wows and promoting Intertribal culture. But, as I
already reported, they weren’t very prominent until after the Alcatraz
occupation of 1969-1971, when an intense intertribalism revitalized
With time and many different tribes adding their individual characters
to the dance, the Iruska took a variety of forms: Grass Dance, Fancy
Dance, the Northern and Southern Traditional, and many more. At first
women did not dance, but today women have a wide variety of dances,
including the Jingle Dance, Shawl Dance, and forms of the Northern and
Pow wow dancing today is based on spiritual values, the commemoration
of warriors who struggled for their people, former enemies dancing
together, peacemakers and peace, cultural survival and spiritual
The Pow Wow Circle
That first year of our Berkeley pow wow in 1993 (and every year since,)
we borrowed a chalker from the city parks department—the kind with
wheels that they use for marking softball playing fields—to lay out the
pow wow circle. In the late afternoon of the day before the event, our
pow wow committee met on the grassy lawn of Civic Center Park. We
brought a rope about 12 paces long, the chalker, and a large bag of
powdered chalk. We needed to explain what were doing to all the high
school students and others relaxing there or playing Frisbee (Berkeley
High School is across the street). Once they understood, they gladly
moved to one side so we could chalk the circle.
One member of the committee held an end of the rope in the exact center
of the park. We tied the other end of the rope to the handle of the
chalker, and Mark Gorrell pushed it in a perfect circle with about a 60
foot diameter. On the east end of the circle he chalked a
turtle’s head, facing the fountain dedicated as the Turtle Island
Monument, on the west end a tail, and four turtle feet in between. It
became a special place, the turtle pow wow arena circle, representing
the American continent. Mark Gorrell performed that task from the first
pow wow until his untimely passing.
The pow wow dancers dance inside the turtle circle, and at particular
times the MC also invites all spectators into the circle to join in
That first pow wow in 1993 set a pattern we would follow every year
The turtle’s head marks the entrance into the arena. To one side are
tables for the MC, the arena director, the coordinator, and other
organizers. Posted near the MC table are an eagle staff and flags,
including the US flag. These will be carried around the dance circle by
honored elders during the Grand Entry at the beginning of the pow wow,
and at the closing. The eagle staff, a high curved wooden staff with
eagle feathers attached, can be thought of as the Native American flag.
At the south end of the turtle circle is the host southern drum, and at
the north end is the host northern drum. The northern and southern
drums represent different styles and traditions.
Continuing around the dance circle are shade canopies where the dancers
and their families and friends rest between events. The circle beyond
that is a walkway, and finally the outside circles consist of Native
vendors selling arts and craft items, mostly hand made, and Indigenous
Inside and around the pow wow circle violence, drugs, or alcohol are
never permitted. The arena has been blessed with prayer and sage; it
has taken on a special atmosphere and become spiritual ground.
Pow wows often have two host drums, one Southern and one Northern. All
other drums are invited, and some often show up unannounced. The drums
usually take turns, unless the MC or arena director specifically asks
one drum to play a particular song.
Many drums travel from powwow to powwow each week and are in high
demand. Many have recording contracts, and each year drum groups are
nominated for Grammy awards in the Native American category.
The drum is heartbeat of the pow wow.
Each drum has a lead singer and a second lead. The lead singer is
responsible for knowing any kind of song requested by the MC or arena
director. When the lead singer sings a line, the second lead usually
repeats it in a variant key.
There are two basic styles of pow wow drumming and singing, Southern
and Northern. These are not geographical locations so much as different
styles and arrangements. Southern singing is in a lower pitch and
slower than Northern, which is often in a high fast falsetto. Songs are
usually in Native languages. Sometimes the songs are not in words at
all, but in vocables, syllables of sound carrying the melody and
A pow wow drum is considered a sacred instrument. In many tribal
traditions it is never left unattended, nothing is ever placed on top
of it, and no one can reach across it. It is constructed with a
wooden shell covered on both ends by the stretched hide of a deer,
buffalo, elk, or steer. The tension on the drum heads tune it,
determining pitch and voice. Usually about 26 – 32 inches across,
standing off the ground, it is large enough for five to ten people to
sit around. There are usually at least four drummers, one for each of
the directions. The drummers beat it in unison with hide-covered
sticks. They are also singers, and their song arises from their unique
blend of voices and drumming. Each group of singers is called “a drum.”
Most drums are all men, but some have women members and some are all
women. Drummers usually dress in ordinary clothes. Most drum carriers
and singers have studied many years learning the traditions and the
songs. Many of the songs have been passed down for unknown
generations, while some are recent. During a song, there will be
occasional “honor” beats, louder and in a slower tempo, which are said
to be done out of respect for the drum. A single drum beat supposedly
represents Mother Earth and a double drum beat represents human beings.
Every pow wow drum is said to contain its own spirit, so the singers
must comport themselves with traditional dignity around it.
Numerous stories are told about pow wow drums, that a woman’s spirit
lives inside them, that they place the people in touch with their
heart, bringing balance, life, and spirituality, that they channel
ancestral voices to heal the people and the earth, that the drum
carries its beat down into the heart of the planet, and returns
carrying the earth’s heartbeat up into the pow wow, summoning the
people together and harmonizing them.
Dawn on pow wow day greets the vendors, many coming from long
distances, setting up booths displaying an amazing array of craft items
and traditional foods. With them is the vendors coordinator Hallie
Frazer and her clip board, straightening out any confusion about spaces
and checking that all the booths are carrying only creations hand made
by Native people. Every vendor contributes a piece to the raffle, and
winners are announced throughout the day.
Around 10 am traditional elders bless the grounds. Then
exhibition dancing begins, from traditions outside the dances of the
pow wow proper. People who arrive later miss this extraordinary
segment. Native California Indians dance first, since it is their land
and we are their guests. Traditional Pomo dancers, feather bands across
their foreheads, feathered robes and skirts, bone whistles, barefoot
and crouched, stomping deep into the earth, hunting, praying. Then the
Aztec dancers, conch shell trumpets to the four directions, long
feathers swooping to the beat of the tall upright drum, connecting
earth and sky, keeping the stars, planets, celestial forces in their
proper motion, balance and harmony.
The Open Gourd Dancing begins. Because of its particular spiritual
significance, no filming is permitted. Led by the Head Gourd Dancer,
the dancers, usually with a red and blue blanket over their shoulders,
holding metal or gourd rattles and feather fans, find places near the
perimeter of the circle. They dance in place or nearby, shaking the
rattles in a horizontal motion, lifting their feet to the drums in
prayer. The pace of the songs starts slowly then picks up as the dance
progresses. It is a healing for warriors, a proud, dignified dance.
At noon is the Grand Entry, and the pow wow proper begins. All the
dancers line up in a specific order behind elders and veterans carrying
the Eagle Staff and flags at the entrance to the arena. This in honor
of all the warriors of the past and veterans of today who sacrificed
for their people. As a host drum begins a special song, the staff
and flag holders lead the procession into the arena and around the
circle, slowly moving in a group to the drum beat. A powerful
spectacle. Then the MC calls an honored elder forward to give an
invocation. As the other host drum plays veterans and victory songs,
the staff and flags are positioned at the MC table, and the procession
leaves the arena.
The dance circle is blessed by an honored elder. The MC introduces the
head staff and visiting dignitaries.
The drum begins again, for either a sneak-up or a round dance. The
sneak-up dance is based on scouting animals or rivals. The drum
quickens to pitch, suddenly stops, and the dancers need to stop
simultaneously. Intertribal Round dances are joyous social occasions,
and all people—non-Native and Native alike—are invited into the arena
to dance together. Everyone joins hands into a long circle moving
around and around. If there are too many, another circle is formed
within the first. The round dance transcends all cultures and brings
The Contest dancing begins, organized around dance style, gender, and
age. The judges are elders, usually winning dancers. The contest styles
are Traditional, Fancy, Grass, Jingle, and Shawl. Pow wow dances today
are the result of over a century of evolution through interaction of
the Native people of different tribes and nations.
The Tiny Tots come on first, all under 6, some in their first pow wow,
always a joy to watch, and everyone’s a winner.
The Head Man and Head Woman Dancers are the first to dance in any song.
This is an honor, and head dancers serve as model for all other
The Men’s Traditional Dance is based on a warrior stalking game or
tracking an enemy. The dancer may be wearing a feather bustle and
headdress, beaded moccasins, ankle bells, carrying a shield and a dance
Men’s Fancy Dance is strenuous, with intricate footwork. Fancy
Dancers spin and leap, wearing brilliant regalia, and two
feathered/beaded dance sticks.
Men’s Grass Dance involves swaying and dipping motions. It began
as an occasion of flattening plains grass for a camp. Grass
dancers wear colorful shirts and pants, with fringes and ribbons, ankle
bells, headdress, beaded moccasins.
Ladies Fancy Shawl Dance is based on a butterfly in flight, with highly
energetic, intricate footwork involving dips, twirls, spins, and other
fancy steps. The dancers wear a fringed shawl with vest and leggings
usually adorned with sequins or beads, and a feather in the hair.
The Jingle Dance dress is sewn with row upon row of small metal cones
that chime rhythmically, and dancers wear beaded leggings, carry a
feather fan and a plume in the hair. The Jingle Dance is associated
In between contest dances there may be Honor Songs for members of the
community who have crossed over in the last year, and Blanket Dances to
raise funds for deserving organizations, families in need, visiting
drums, or another worthy cause. Every year there are special dances,
such as a Two Step/Owl Dance (Ladies Choice); a Potato Dance sponsored
by the Black Native American Association, a Switch Dance (women and men
exchanging regalia and dancing in each other’s style). We've also held
Prettiest Shawl contests, which have proved extremely popular.
At various times more intertribal Round dances are held where all
people, Native and non-Native dance together.
Toward the end of the day the final raffle winners are announced. The
contest winners are called to be honored and receive their prizes. A
Thank-you song for the organizing committee.
Finally at 6 pm, as the sun hovers low in the west, the Eagle Staff and
the colors are retired, and the Indigenous People Day Pow Wow is ended
until next year.
Mitakuye oyasin. For all our relations.
Numerous people have made important contributions to the Indigenous
Peoples Day Pow Wow and the IPD Committee over the many years since our
first pow wow. There are too many to thank all of you by name here, but
your spirit is still very much with us in the smudge circle.
Several important members who have recently walked on, Don Littlecloud
Davenport, Millie Ketcheshawno, and Mark Gorrell are of course still
Peoples Day Pow Wow Coordinators
1992 Dennis Jennings
1993 Lee Sprague
1994 John Bellinger
1995-1999 Millie Ketcheshawno
2000-2004 Sharilene Suki
2005-2006 Rochelle Hayes
2007-2015 Gino Barichello
Turtle Island Monument Fountain
[Oakland Tribune, March 22,
Transforming the old broken fountain into the Turtle Island
Monument, first proposed by Lee Sprague, was endorsed unanimously by
the Berkeley City Council and dedicated by Native elders on the first
Indigenous Peoples Day in 1992. The Fountain was conceived as a living
symbol of the sustainable way of life practiced by Native People of the
American continent, of the continuity between the original inhabitants
of this land and the people who have come here from all corners of the
globe, and as an inspiration to modern society to create a sustainable
But during the city process,
several preservationists began to lobby adamantly against the
demolition of the old fountain. Finally a compromise was reached. Lee
and Marlene Watson's original drawing had one turtle in the
center of the fountain, and
medallions with symbols of Native America embedded into the surrounding
walkway. Now the old structure of the fountain would be retained and
around it turtle sculptures would be installed in the four directions
with four medallions between them.
More delays followed. In 2002, on the tenth anniversary of the original
dedication, the Turtle Fountain was rededicated at the pow wow by a
round dance, in which eveyone could join, led by champion fancy-dancer
Gilbert Blacksmith. The following spring, the City set up a Selection
Committee to choose an artist and to oversee the completion of the
project. The Native representatives on the committee were Sharilene
Suki and Janeen Antoine, both highly esteemed in the Native community.
In 2005 they chose Scott Parson of South Dakota as the artist. In 2008
Parson's sculptures and medallions arrived in Berkeley. However, by
that time, as the national and world economy crashed, the funds to
install the turtles had vanishd.
So the turtle sculptures were
put on temporary display at city hall, while the medallions remained in
their packing crates in a warehose, where they remain today, still
waiting installation in their final home around the Turtle
[Photo by the City of Berkeley]
[Image: the City
1. All photos by Nancy Gorrell or from her collection unless