United in Motion
For 30 years, the Austin Powwow has celebrated indigenous heritage and customs
By ire’ne lara silva
Photographs by Christ Chávez
The drums are first. I’ve never been able to figure out if the drums echo my heartbeat or if my heart races to match the drums. From my first step into the arena, I can feel the drums thrumming under my feet. Then the singing registers, voices ferocious and free, like lightning, like wind—all the voices singing as one. And then there are the dancers—a kaleidoscope of performers, from tiny toddlers in full regalia spinning like tops, to stately senior women elegantly swaying, to young women in dresses with bells that chime to the drumbeat, to men in the Fancy dance competition whose feet hardly seem to touch the ground as they transform into blurs of color. Everything is drumming and singing and dancing. I take a moment and absorb it all: the difference in styles, the grace and power of the dancers, the regalia, the feathers, the feather fans, the bustles, the moccasins, the buckskins, the beadwork, the individual or familial patterns and designs. In a world that often claims Indigenous peoples and traditions belong only to history, I see all around me the truth. We are here. We are still dancing to the beat of the drums.
For one Saturday in November every year, the Austin Powwow, celebrating its 30th year this fall, offers much to do, see, experience, and eat. The scent of festival food greets hungry visitors to the Travis County Expo Center—roasted meats and fry bread and delicious things that trigger mouth-watering reflexes. Countless rows of vendors offer arts, crafts, jewelry, clothing, and other gifts. The powwow is open to all ages and backgrounds, not just those of Indigenous descent. Drawing almost 15,000 attendees annually, the Austin Powwow is one of the largest Native-run gatherings in Texas. The space is physically accessible, and tickets are affordable (12 and under are free; adults are $7 at the gate). The 12-hour event is hosted by Great Promise for American Indians, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Native American heritage. “The powwow embodies important cultural traditions, which strengthen the people and empower generations to come,” says Robert Bass, Great Promise’s executive director going back to a few years after the organization’s inception in 1991.
Since moving to Austin 25 years ago, I’ve tried my best to never miss the Austin Powwow. While I primarily identify as Latina and Mexican American, I also acknowledge my Indigenous ancestry. My mother proudly claimed her Indigenous roots from both sides of the Texas-Mexico border, but unfortunately, my father’s side carried generations’ worth of shame and did their best to disavow their genealogy. For me, the Austin Powwow has been a space for learning and connecting. I regret that my mother couldn’t attend one before she passed away in 2001. My older brother, who chose not to identify as Indigenous, claimed he couldn’t find the powwow and took her to Golden Corral instead. My youngest brother, who passed away last year, went with me every chance he could. Even after his leg was amputated, I guided his manual wheelchair around. I loved the dancers and the drums. He was adamant about having a Navajo taco, fresh fry bread chock-full of beans, seasoned beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and New Mexico red or green chile. Every year, I attend for me, for my mother and youngest brother, and for all those like me, who claim or yearn to claim who they are.
Derived from the Algonquian Indian word pau wau, or he dreams, the concept of a powwow originated as a personal religious experience, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Powwows evolved into intertribal affairs around the time of the “reservation era” of the mid-to-late 1800s, as Natives who inhabited the Great Plains from the southern prairies of Canada to the lower plains of Texas forged alliances. Great Promise draws Natives from across the country, though tribal affiliations aren’t outwardly apparent. In addition to the Austin Powwow, Great Promise offers educational programming in schools, including Red Voices, which facilitates in-person visits from Native American artists. “We also have our Great Promise Dancers, who perform all over the state year-round,” Bass says. “And we have monthly potlucks and family days where we gather people to teach crafts or invite a drum group—all kinds of activities for people to meet each other and build our community.”
About 50 vendors delight the senses of visitors to the Austin Powwow. An artist since he was little, Juan Martinez of Indio Art attended his first powwow, in Houston, after high school. Martinez’s company, based in Baytown, offers an array of items, from leatherwork to longboards to custom-made hats. “I keep it all Native style and Indigenous themed,” he says. “It’s important to express who we are.” Martinez works the festival circuit year-round and often has customers fly in to buy his work.
Jannet Edwards Kizer of North Winds Legacy, based in Sayers, creates dream catchers made with all-natural materials. The Manzanita Dream Catchers are the first ones to catch a customer’s eye, she says. “They resemble a branch where most people would expect to see a spider’s web,” Kizer says. She was inspired to begin her business after her youngest granddaughter asked her for a dream catcher in 2013. “The Austin Powwow has been instrumental in allowing us to share and educate so many people from all types of backgrounds,” Kizer says.
Two popular food vendors that return each year include Platero Fry Bread & Navajo Tacos, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico—they make the tacos my little brother loved—and Vic’s BBQ in Austin. Tables are available in the Show Barn, but families, couples, and groups of friends often choose to picnic on the grassy stretches outside.
“We’re a 100% Native- and woman-owned business,” Dora Platero says. She started Platero Fry Bread on the side, as a single mom working full time and going to school, to fund her kids’ participation in sports and other extracurricular activities. “I didn’t have the money for it,” she says, “so I got the word out that I was making fry bread and tortillas.” Platero has gone on to build a special event catering and concession business that has employed her children and grandchildren. “I love the people,” Platero says of the Austin Powwow. “They come up to me and tell me stories about their grandmothers or their great-grandmothers or their moms, all about their memories of people making bread.”
Over the 20 years Vic’s BBQ has served food at the Austin Powwow, their most requested items have been turkey legs, roasted corn, and chicken on a stick, according to Victoria Murrieta. The business was started by Murrieta’s father, who began frequenting barbecue cookoffs at 19. She says they got involved with the powwow out of her father’s love of history. “We have Cherokee ancestry,” she says, “and my dad loves being involved, being part of the community, and knowing our culture.”
While eating and shopping are integral to the powwow experience, dancers take center stage in the festivities. Daniel Villarreal is a Lipan Apache dancer from San Juan who competes in the Men’s Northern Traditional dances. Villarreal began dancing at age 17, when he was a senior in high school. He has participated in the Austin Powwow since its inception, save the years he was in the military. After three decades as a dancer, Villarreal is inspired by the younger kids. “I’m really proud of some of my nephews and my nieces who dance and look up to me,” Villareal says. “I’ve known them since they were babies, and now I’m competing against them. I’m proud that I can pass the torch.”
For me, the day always ends with dancing. Even after night has fallen, the drumbeats continue, and the performers betray no weariness despite dances that become more urgent and impassioned. The singers likewise show no sign of their 12 hours of grueling effort. The Austin Powwow and its performers are a testament to the strength of the Native community in Austin, across Texas, and beyond. They speak the truth: Native and Indigenous peoples don’t just exist in history books, they are alive and well. I leave the Austin Powwow with the drums reverberating through my body, my heart and spirit strong and grateful.
Experience the spectrum of fancy footwork
The Travis County Expo Center’s Luedecke Arena is typically where all the dancing takes place. The dancers compete in different age categories: Tiny Tots, Junior Boys/Girls, Teen Boys/Girls, Adult Men’s/Women’s, Senior Adult Men’s/Women’s, and Golden Age Men’s/Women’s. Varied styles of dance, originating in different places and times, emphasize certain features.
In the Men’s Northern Traditional, dancers act out a battle or a hunt. The Women’s Northern Traditional is much more sedate, with the women mostly dancing in place, turning their bodies very slightly. The Chicken dance is one of the most entertaining to watch, with the men imitating the mating dance of the prairie chicken grouse. One of the most highly anticipated dances is the women’s Jingle, named after the enchanting bell-like sounds made by the hundreds of small metal cones on each dress. The last competition of the day is the Men’s Fancy dance—meant to astonish and delight attendees with its riotous color and fast pace.
*Adopted from the Great Promise for American Indians
Enjoy yourself as you watch the performances, but do not touch the dancers or their outfits. Every object on the dancer’s regalia is considered sacred.
Dance in the arena only if you are invited by the MC. During the powwow, the MC will call for special “blanket dances.” This is a powwow tradition in which the audience shows its appreciation for the singers through dance.
Feel free to take photographs and video, but refrain from taking close-ups unless you first ask permission from the individual.
Rocking the Rez Pow Wow
Sept. 30-Oct. 1
Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, Socorro.
Sacred Springs Powwow
Meadows Center, San Marcos.
Texas Championship Pow Wow
Traders Village, Houston.
Travis County Expo Center, Austin.
United San Antonio Pow Wow
2024 dates TBA.
San Antonio College,
2024 dates TBA.
Alabama-Coushatta Veteran’s Pavilion, Livingston.