Like a Big Hug From Grandma: Denver March Pow Wow Celebrates 40 Years

Heather Steinberger

From March 21 to 23, members of nearly 100 nations from more than 30 states will gather at the Denver Coliseum in Colorado’s capital city for the annual Denver March Powwow.

This year, the dancers, drum groups, artists and spectators will do more than kick off a new pow wow season, however. They also will celebrate the 40th anniversary of an event that has grown from modest beginnings to become a major draw throughout Indian country.

According to Grace B. Gillette, the Denver March Powwow’s executive director, the event’s roots lie in the 1950s Urban Indian Relocation Program. This U.S. government encouraged those who were living on reservations to move to seven major urban areas around the nation — and between 1950 and 1980, hundreds of thousands did exactly that. “The relocation program gave Denver its core base of Indians,” Gillette told ICTMN.

The not-for-profit Denver Indian Center was created to support young urban Indians and their families through programs that focused on self-determination, cultural identity and education. In the early 1970s, the center started its Youth Enrichment Program.

“The young people wanted to learn to dance, to sing,” Gillette said. “This really was a reaction to assimilation. The center began offering classes so they could learn to dance and to make their own clothes.”

The young people would host fashion-show fundraisers so they could attend pow wows on the reservations during the summer months. There was so much interest from Denver’s children, Gillette said, that the center decided to develop the Youth Enrichment Powwow. That way, the young people could participate in a pow wow close to home. “They chose March because it was spring break, and families could come,” she said. “They’d have naming ceremonies for girls and boys, so they could earn the right to wear their eagle feathers and plumes. By the third year, people were calling about it.”


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