Hawaii’s Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow
In today’s North American pow wow circuit, large continental contest pow wows are the most popular destinations. Traditional pow wows draw smaller crowds, and Hawai’i is rarely, if ever, included on the pow wow highway.
To some, however, the Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow, is the top destination, and to others, it is the only one.
This year’s Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow head woman dancer Naomi Billedeaux, Blackfeet/Salish from Missoula, Mont., described the Hilo pow wow as “definitely ‘out of the box,’” due to the multitude of ethnicities from throughout the world that are represented and honored as well as the informal nature of the commonly strict pow wow protocol.
“In some ways, I like it a little bit more because in a lot of pow wow culture, you don’t see the unity between different ethnic groups,” she said. “It’s a freeing experience. It’s just so healthy to experience other cultures and to experience the health benefit of dancing.”
The six-year-old weekend of events commenced this year on Friday morning, May 27, by respecting Hawaiian traditions as Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners Leilehua Yuen and Manu Josiah led pow wow dancers, supporters and participants to Moku Ola, Island of Life, for the p? kai, a cleansing ceremony.
The group then participated in the Huaka`i ma K?lauea cultural excursion to Kilauea Crater to pay respect to Pele, head of the family which brought the hula to the Hawaiian people.
“Since the pow wow is so involved with dance, it seems appropriate to pay respect to her,” Yuen said. “A huaka`i implies that you have a home and are visiting a new place, and will return home.”
The bulk of the huaka`i travelers were members of the visiting Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers from the Sun’aq Nation on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Most individuals in this 17-member group had never been to a pow wow before. So, attending and performing at the pow wow on Saturday and Sunday were life-changing events.
According to Alutiiq dancer and elder Virginia Abston, the dances and songs, including the language and words, performed by the group, although centuries-old, had disappeared from their island due to oppression by colonizers.
“Our culture was basically lost. There was no singing, no dancing, no art,” she said. “We are fortunate that some of our dances have been given back to us from people who took them.”
The group’s choreographer, Trish Abston-Cox, Alutiiq, said this reclamation involved traveling to meet with the Kiks.adi in Sitka and other Native peoples throughout Alaska to re-learn the Alutiiq songs and dances.
Prior to her participation in the Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow Alutiiq dancer Rebecca Pruitt, 17, did not realize the importance of sharing the tribe’s ways with individuals of other cultures.
“This way our tradition can be passed on and understood by other people … so that people don’t forget us and that we are a tribe, too,” she said.
Pruitt explained that practicing and sharing her tribe’s traditions instills self-confidence in her and encourages her to remain on Kodiak Island, rather than relocating.
“I know who I am and who I want to become. I want to be able to share my culture, and pass it on to my kids so that they can become something to be proud of. I feel really blessed to know what I know,” she said.
Iroquois Music and Iroquois Women’s Studies Teacher Kalana Nicole Brooks, Oneida of Wisconsin, who also performed as a guest with her group at the pow wow, said the hospitality and cultural exchange between so many peoples was the most enjoyable aspect of her visit.
“We loved it. I liked that it was small, that they are promoting sobriety, the weather, the location … . We were taught Hawaiian ways. Our dancers had the opportunity to sleep on the ocean, to cook in an imu [traditional Hawaiian earth oven], to hear the Hawaiian language, participate in their ceremonies … . It was huge for our boys to see that the Hawaiian kids their age know their language and their culture so well,” she said.
Brooks believes that these experiences will encourage the dancers to return to Wisconsin and become even more engrossed in their own Oneida ways.
Mike Allen, Micmac, also said that the diversity of peoples at the pow wow is one of his favorite aspects of the events. Allen, who is a fair-skinned grass dancer, said he never felt comfortable at continental pow wows due to his appearance. At the Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow, however, he has always been appreciated, he said, and is featured on the 2011 poster.
“Looking like this, you’re not welcome at pow wows, but this is my expression of who I am,” he said. “When I got here, I knew I was in the right place.”
The Hilo Inter-Tribal Powwow is pow wow, perhaps, at its purest form. The traditional, non-contest series of events draws peoples from distant nations to share their ancient song, dance and culture.
At the 2011 powwow, visitors from the Diné, Hopi, Nez Perce, Mohawk, Onandaga, Micmac, Apache, Blackfoot, Yakima, Salish, Kootenai, Oneida, Métis, Pend d’Oreille, Isleta Pueblo, Sac/Fox, Alutiiq, Cherokee, Bad River LaPointe, Lakota, Hawaiian cultures and more were represented. Event organizer Liz De Roche, Métis, reported that according to poles conducted at the pow wow, this year’s events drew 25 percent more the guests from outside Hawai’i Island in comparison to 2010. Of those poled, 41 percent were attending for the first time and 99 percent said that they intend to return and would recommend the pow wow to friends.
“It’s a wonderful event that lets us see something outside our own culture,” Yuen said. “We need to remember there is a great big world out there.”
At the close of the pow wow and before the crowd, 12-year-old Alutiiq dancer Isiah Simeonoff presented his handmade traditional dance mask to Josiah after phoning his grandfather in Alaska to request permission. Josiah was stunned.
“It has been an honor and a pleasure to share our culture with our guests — being the host culture — and someday we hope that we are the guests,” Josiah said in gratitude.
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