The 27th annual UCLA powwow kicked off this spring as many powwows do: with a Gourd Dance. Half-a-dozen men circle a large drum, singing as they pound it with mallets. Next to them, in a circle of grass, four older men in dress shirts and pants, draped with blue and red blankets and crowned with fur caps, shake rattles and bounce to the rhythm. A couple dozen families and friends watch from beneath canopies rimming the arena.
Others mill about at food and craft booths. When the dance is done, one of them--actor Saginaw Grant--addresses the crowd.
"These songs are very old songs composed by different ones throughout the years," said Grand. "They’re for everyone around this arena, even our relatives who aren’t here today our loved ones these songs are for them. I feel I’m following in the steps of my elders. I’ve heard many times when they talk about this drum they say it’s the heartbeat of our people."
The Gourd Dance comes from the Kiowa and Comanche tribes. The steps are minimal. But other powwow dances—the grass dance, the women’s fancy shawl—are more intricate and showy.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the US government tried to suppress Indian dancing, but only succeeded in driving it underground. Today men from many tribes perform the gourd dance, like Manny Mandivill, a Vietnam vet from Arizona’s Tohono O’odham tribe.
"When I go out there and dance, I dance with pride I want to make people feel inside that we’re still thriving and we’re getting stronger," said Mandivill.
Mandivill says he introduced his 17-year-old daughter to powwows to connect her with her Indian heritage, even though the dances come from the American Plains not the Southwest.
Powwows trace their origins to dances performed by social groups within and across various tribes of the plains, from north Dakota to eastern New Mexico. The dances were often shared among tribes. And many honored warriors. Historian Clyde Ellis of Elon University says many were revived during World War II as Indians sought to honor their servicemen.
"These moments of sending men off to service also encouraged the use of particular songs, prayers and rituals that had not been lost," said Ellis. "But they had not been practiced as much in the 19th century.
And after the government stopped suppressing the dances, they spread across the country.
"By the 30s and 40s these dance traditions begin to get exported as Indians for example begin to get automobiles and travel more widely," said Ellis. "And we begin to see a number of urban Indian association. Taking on powwows as a form of gathering that brings Indians together and allows them to share this inter-tribal ethic of singing and dancing."
By the 1950s, the majority of American Indians lived in cities. Powwows allowed people from various tribes to assert a collective indigenous identity.
Today, California is home to more American Indians than any other state and LA County boasts the nation’s largest urban Indian population. Powwows like those held at Cal State Long Beach and the Morongo Casino can draw a lot of people.
Last year’s Miss UCLA Powwow, Nora Pulskamp, is a Navajo woman who grew up in the San Fernando Valley.
"For the most part Navajo customs are kept in our homeland," said Pulskamp. "When my mom came out here she was introduced to the LA urban native community and it was being connected with them we started dancing. We went through the proper protocol of having someone sponsor and teach you."
Today as the Navajos, California Indian Casinos, and others sponsor powwows, new traditions are cropping up. With dainty hops and flowing gestures, Whitney Bower of the Cahuilla Indian Reservation performs a dance from a cycle that chronicles the history of Southern California’s Cahuilla people.
Steven John Garcia is a member of the Tongva tribe. He's also part Apache and Yaqui from Mexico. Dressed for the powwow, he looks more like the Lakota family he married into: in a feathered headpiece, beaded collar, and deerskin loincloth and moccasins. Deer and elk hooves jangle around his ankles.
"Mostly what I have on is things given to me by a lot of my elders for the way I carry my life, the way I lead my life," said Garcia. "Whenever my uncles go hunting I say make sure you bring me those hooves. Everything I wear has a meaning to me. If you look at people, if you look at their outfits you see subtleties in where you’re from. I’m definitely Northern traditional but I’m wearing this elk shoulder blade with a dolphin inlined with my tribal insignia--that’s a Southern California symbol. "
As powwows have changed--doling out trophies and prize money, incorporating plastic beads and dancers indigenous to Mexico, even becoming popular in Germany--historian Clyde Ellis says some question their authenticity. "My answer is that it’s an institution that from the very beginning collected all sorts of influences, there's no one way to do it," he said.
Chuck Narcho, a Tohono O’odham man who participated in the Indian occupation of Alcatraz, is aware of the contradictions but still frequents powwows. "It takes me back, I get lost, I think what it was like 200 years ago," he said. "I think what it was like way back when."
In many ways, American Indians have assimilated into white culture. But as Manny Mandivill said when talking about bringing his daughter to powwows: “There are two worlds: the white world and the Indian world. I want her to know both.”