Floating pow wow offers unique vacation

Gale Courey Toensing
6/9/09

WASHINGTON STATE – If you love pow wows and adore the ocean, a trip on the Pow Wow Cruise is likely to be at the top of your list of ideal vacations.

Although the Pow Wow Cruise has been operating for 15 years, it remains below the radar. That’s because the business is operated by a husband and wife team, David and Linda Underwood, on a shoestring budget, with largely word-of-mouth advertising. But the Pow Wow Cruise’s reputation is growing, and David Underwood hopes to one day see his dream of an entire cruise ship filled with American Indians for the biggest floating pow wow in history.

“Most of the ships hold about 2,000 people, but we have only 200 to 300 in our groups. But I’m never going to give up my dream, and that is to finally get enough support, maybe some corporate support so we have some financial backing and can do some serious advertising, to someday charter the entire cruise ship with 2,000 Native people, and we’re just going to take over for one massive pow wow. That’s my dream, but until we get to that point, we’re going to do what we’re doing now, and that is getting 200 to 300 people on board and having a good time,” he said.

“And everyone said you can’t do it. It’s too difficult. The logistics are impossible. Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll show you you’re wrong.”

– David Underwood, Pow Wow Cruise owner


Underwood has owned a cruise agency for a long time and, while not Native himself, has a wide circle of American Indian friends. Almost two decades ago, one of his friends invited him to a pow wow in Palm Springs, Calif. He loved it.

“I went down there and I just thought it was great and I said to my friend, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m always doing unique things onboard cruise ships and it would be such a blast to do a pow wow on a cruise ship.’ So I started asking, how would that be received? Would it be offensive?’”

There was no consensus in the feedback.

Friends from Oklahoma would say, “Oh, no, you can’t do that! A pow wow should always be on land.” Those from the Pacific Northwest in Washington State would say, “That would be wonderful! We honor the ocean!”

“And I thought, okay, I can see the different traditions, so I said, okay, I’m going to do it. And everyone said you can’t do it. It’s too difficult. The logistics are impossible. I talked to all the cruise lines and they said the same thing, but I love a challenge. Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll show you you’re wrong,” Underwood said.

It took about two years to organize the first floating pow wow and the couple has been hosting two or three cruises a year since then.

The Alaska Pow Wow Cruise is a seven-day trip that takes place every two years and travels up the Pacific coast from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Anchorage, Alaska, visiting Glacier Bay and College Fjord. The next cruise will be in the summer of 2010.

The most recent East Coast cruise was a five-day trip that departed from Miami in January and visited Grand Cayman and Jamaica.

 
Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Joanne Shenandoah and Michael Bucher perform for the Pow Wow Cruise.

The next West Coast trip will depart from San Diego Sept. 14. Passengers will spend a day exploring Catalina Island and another day shopping in Ensenada, Mexico.

This trip will be a special Flute Cruise, Underwood said. “Mary Youngblood has been after me for years to do a flute cruise.”

Youngblood, a multi-Grammy-award winner was a performer on the first Pow Wow Cruise years ago, before she had cut her first album.

The Flute Cruise will include Youngblood, multi-award-winning flutist Robert Tree Cody, and 2008 NAMMY Flautist of the Year Jan Michael Looking Wolf.

“They are going to be doing workshops and lessons. Where else can you sit down with those three talents? Tree’s a legend. I’ve seen him get up and jam with blues players, a brass band, flamenco guitar, it doesn’t matter, the man’s an enormous talent,” Underwood said.

Other artists who regularly perform on the Pow Wow Cruise include Grammy-award-winning singer/songwriter Joanne Shenandoah, the Silvercloud Singers, Arvel Bird, Murray Porter and Michael Bucher.

This year Standing Horse, 2008 national best drum Powwow Idol contest winners on www.powwows.com, will be the host drum on the September West Coast Cruise, which was one of the contest prizes.

“The performers often ask me what I expect from them, how long should they play? I say, ‘I expect you to do what your fans want, that’s all, whether they want one song or an hour of songs. The Pow Wow Cruise is a vacation for entertainers. They deserve it. They work really hard. All we ask is that they share their music and it doesn’t have to be formal. We don’t do a big production, no big groups or back up bands. Michael Bucher sat down on a chair with his acoustic guitar and performed for everyone,” Underwood said.

The goal is to create a relaxed atmosphere where performers and vacationers have fun.

 
Everyone gets up for a Round Dance on the deck during the Pow Wow Cruise.

“Linda and I do everything we can to assure people have a great time. That’s what we really want. It truly is unique to hold a pow wow on the open decks of a ship. Our event has helped increase the comfort level for many Native Americans to experience the romance and excitement of a luxury cruise, while sharing their culture with fellow passengers from all over the world.”

Yes, romance happens on cruise ships; it’s not just a Love Boat stereotype.

Underwood said three weddings have taken place over the years as a result of the cruise.

But the most dramatic and magical took place when a regular on the cruise ship brought along a friend who was terminally ill and not expected to live for more than year.

“He said his friend was pretty weak and pretty sick and he wanted to take him to Tulum (Mexico) to a Mayan ruin. He said there’s a pyramid over there that he believed had some healing powers and he wanted to take his friend up there and do a ceremony,” Underwood said.

When they returned from the sacred site, the ailing man looked very sick, he said.

“But later that evening he met someone on the cruise, a woman who had never been on the cruise before. They talked, and they made friends and to make a long story short, not only did he survive, he’s been married to her for four years and he’s doing very well.”


It takes about eight months to organize a cruise, but the payoff comes at the end of the trip.

“The high point for us is when people are coming to us and hugging us and giving us gifts and thanking us for the time of their life. One lady sent us an e-mail that said, ‘I never thought Natives could have so much fun.’ I loved that comment,” Underwood said.

“A cruise isn’t for everybody, but for those who think they might like it, we have raised the comfort level for Natives to come off the reservation and come on board. We had one lady in her 80s who said this was the first time she’d left the reservation for a vacation. She got tears in her eyes and said it was a great experience. It can’t help but touch you at the end of the cruise when everyone is happy they had such a great time and sad that they have to go.”

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