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A dancer performs on the floor in sync with the drummers during the 47th annual Denver March Powwow, Friday, Mar. 17, 2023, at the Denver Coliseum. The Native American dance groups representing nearly 100 different tribs from U.S. and Canada converged over the weekend at the Denver arena for dancing and music as a kickoff for the summer’s powwow season. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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.”

A young fan watch the dancers perform on the floor during the 47th annual Denver March Powwow on Friday. A Pow Wow is a social gathering with dancing and music passed down from their ancestors. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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.”

There are over 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States as intertribal performers share the floor during the 47th annual Denver March Powwow. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
“The drum is our heartbeat,” Running Eagle said, as the drummers from different tribes share the same song while the dancers perform on the floor. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
A dancer performs on the floor. Different styles dancing and clothing come from traditional tribal dances. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
A dancer performs on the floor during the 47th annual Denver March Powwow, Friday, Mar. 17, 2023, at the Denver Coliseum. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

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 Jingle Dress Dance involves movement to make distinct noises from rows of metal cones sewn on the performers’ clothing. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“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. 

Over a thousand of dancers from nearly 100 tribal nations shared the floor during the 47th annual Denver March Powwow over the weekend. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
“Keeping in time with the drum and knowing to stop on time with the last beat of the song.” Darrel Wildcat said of the familiar songs that the dancers are in sync with. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
Dancers await their turn on the floor during the 47th annual Denver March Powwow. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

“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.”

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Stephanie Wolf

Stephanie Wolf is an audio producer and journalist and occasional photographer. She was an Arthur F. Burns Fellow in 2021 and recently returned to Colorado from Louisville, Kentucky.