Darrell Wildcat started dancing when he was 9.
“I just wanted to be part of it,” said Wildcat, who is from Norman, Oklahoma. “I expressed an interest, and my parents got (my regalia) together. My dad did a lot of the bead work. My mom did all the cloth work and I had another friend who did the feather work.”
Now 77, Wildcat has been coming to the Denver March Powwow since its early days. Competing in the dance events, and the associated regalia, has become a family affair. He danced during the “Living Treasures” contest Friday, opening day of the 47th Denver March Powwow. Then, from the stands of the Denver Coliseum, still wearing his handmade Southern Straight Dance-style outfit, Wildcat filmed one of his grandsons with his phone as the young dancer took the floor for his own dance contest.
Wildcat and his wife worked together to make the regalia for this multi-generational dance family, with him largely designing the colorful, detailed and expressive clothing worn for important events and dances, and his wife executing the craftsmanship.
“Hopefully they’ll pass that on later when they get older,” Wildcat said, referencing his grandchildren. “And show [their children] how to make stuff.”
Maintaining traditions and culture like regalia-making, dancing and drumming is a key part of the Denver March Powwow, which ran through Sunday. Longtime executive director Grace Gillette said the event began in the 70s to help urban living Indigenous youth connect with their heritage.
“For kids, it keeps their interest alive in their culture and who they are because, like with anybody, if you don’t know where you come from, how can you be comfortable with yourself,” said Gillette, who is from the Arikara tribe of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.
“Although they may or may not have ever lived on the reservation, these kids know who they are. They know about their culture,” she continued. “They may or may not be enrolled in a tribe, but they have made that connection with their ancestors.”
Carol Melting Tallow, 43, has been coming to the Denver March Powwow on and off for about two decades. In more recent years, she’s attended the event, considered the unofficial kickoff of the whole pow wow season, with her son as a way to teach him to “continue on the legacy of our name and our people.”
She sat on a low bench at the edge of the arena floor, cutting fabric for one of her son’s costumes. Melting Tallow, a member of the Blood Tribe in southern Alberta, Canada, makes all of her family’s regalia, a process that can take months or years depending on the intricacy of the designs. The dress she wore Friday included a hand beaded floral motif that draped over her shoulders and across her chest.
She explained that the eagle plumes used in her headpiece came from the part of the bird’s body right below its tail.
“What the representation is is like the wealth of an individual, honoring what a person gets,” Melting Tallow said. “They win certain victories to get something so sacred.”
Georgette Running Eagle has come to past Denver March Powwows to perform in the Jingle Dress Dance contests. But this year, she was here to sell regalia-making materials, items like jingle cones, bolts of fabric, beads and synthetic elk teeth. Running Eagle has a shop in Chubbuck, Idaho called Shokota Pow-Wow Supply, and began the store because, coming from a dancing family, it was often a challenge to locally purchase what they needed.
“The regalia is so important and so integral to our dances,” she said. “It’s our culture, it’s our livelihood, it’s our lifestyle, it’s a way of prayer. Just to be out there in the dance circle and feel the euphoria, you forget about your pains, your illnesses, your problems.”
While the Denver March Powwow is about preserving Native culture, it isn’t only for Indigenous people, Gillette said.
“I think one of the reasons we do this is we want non-Natives to know that we’re still alive and thriving in America,” she said. “Even today, you pick up a history book and read it and it makes it sound like our culture is extinct. But it’s not. We’re still here.”