Denver March Powwow reaps benefits of executive director’s unique experience
DENVER, Colo. – When Grace Gillette contemplates the arc of her working life, she sees an organic connection from her beginning on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota to her position now as executive director of the famous Denver March Powwow.
“It’s almost like this is the job I was preparing myself for all my life,” Gillette said.
The Denver March Powwow is one of the biggest pow wows in the country, attracting around 55,000 people from all over the continent, and beyond and dozens of drum groups. Representatives of almost 100 tribes attend to celebrate their history and culture through arts and crafts, storytelling and, above all, dance and music.
Gillette has been the executive director of the popular event for 18 years. Like so many other Native people who live in two worlds, Gillette brings a unique blend of corporate and traditional experience to the job, each of which is enhanced by the other.
Gillette was born and raised at Fort Berthold, the home of the Three Affiliated Tribes – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – where she learned her first lessons in management and gained her first organizational skills and where, retrospectively, she came to understand the meaning of broken treaties.
“Have you ever seen the picture of the gentleman crying when they flooded the reservation? Well, that gentleman is my father. When I was a little girl he used to always say, ‘You’re the only good thing that happened to me in 1948,’ and it never occurred to me until he was dead and gone why he was saying that.”
George Gillette was the tribal chairman in 1948 when the tribes suffered the collective trauma of dispossession of their land and fragmentation of their communities after they were coerced into selling their land for the construction of the Garrison Dam. The tribes were given $5.1 million for 152,360 acres of their land – around $33 an acre for the rich river valley lands they had inhabited for millennia.
In the famous photo, George Gillette stands with a group of men behind a desk where a seated man signs away the tribes’ land. He holds a pair of glasses in his right hand and wipes away tears with his left.
“We had to sign the contract. They didn’t have a choice. You know how they are with their treaties. … But my dad was part of the Dead Grass Society; he was the Tail Feather Carrier for the Arikara Tribe and he organized many celebrations and dances, so as a child I saw what was needed to be done when a social gathering was being planned,” Gillette said.
Her family moved to Manderee, N.D. to a brand new community when the tribal lands were flooded for the dam and attended school there until her sophomore year in high school.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s there were a lot of programs – like the Employment Assistance Program, the relocation program – to get the Indians off the reservation. I actually left because of Native American Scholarship Funds. They had scholarships for high school and college students, but they had specific schools you had to attend.”
Her mother chose the Berea Foundation School in Berea, Ky., and after graduation she went on to Haskell Indian Nations University.
Photo courtesy Denver March Powwow
Shawl dancer Kelly Walker, Arikara, from North Dakota at the Denver March Powwow.
“I had always wanted to be a secretary and so I went to Haskell when it was still a vocational training school and took their business course and graduated from Haskell and used the relocation program to go to California.”
There she worked as a secretary for 18 months, then moved to Oklahoma City and, finally, in 1972 settled in Denver where she became part of a core group that would soon organize what became the Denver March Powwow, although they didn’t know it at the time.
“In any urban area there are Indians that probably went there on the relocation program, and there was a group in Denver. As an Indian, the first place you go after the BIA is to look for other Indians and they had an Indian Center in Denver,” Gillette said.
They used to call it “the day of the federal dollar” because of the numerous federally-funded programs for Indians in the 1970s, Gillette said. Federal dollars fueled a number of programs and activities at the Indian Center almost every night of the week and that’s where everyone congregated.
“And in this core group, their children were finding out they were Indian and they wanted to dance. Of course, you just don’t throw your kid out there. They have to have the right to wear their eagle feathers; they have to have the right to be in the dance arena, and you have to make their dancing clothes,” Gillette said.
The families got together informally and taught dance and singing classes, beading lessons, and instruction in how to make regalia, funded by Youth Enrichment Program grants.
Soon the center began holding weekly Youth Enrichment Powwows that grew into a monthly and then an annual event.
“A lot of families couldn’t afford to go back to the rez for their big summer celebrations and have a giveaway for their children, so the pow wows really helped,” Gillette said.
But Denver had the White Buffalo Council Powwow and Indian Center Powwow in the summer so when people would call and ask, ‘When’s the powwow, the one in March?’ it became known as the Denver March Powwow.
Gillette said the pow wow was popular from the beginning.
“We’re not sure if it was because people had cabin fever and wanted to get out, but it also was more than a pow wow. There were naming ceremonies. They got their eagle feathers.”
While the pow wow grew during the ’70s and ’80s, Gillette’s attention was focused on her career. She honed her managerial and organizational skills in a number of jobs; manager of operations for the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, business manager/corporate officer for the Native American Rights Fund, office manager for the American Indian Commission on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, logistical support coordinator/office manager for Osoro and Associates.
In 1984, the pow wow incorporated into a business with core group members comprising most of the board of directors, each of whom chaired a committee. That’s when Gillette returned as an active volunteer.
Photo courtesy Denver March Powwow
Local Denver drummers play at the Denver March Powwow with Fancy dancer Doug Foote, Hunkpapa, and Grass dancer Lakota Clairmont Sicangu, both from Denver.
The next step was to hire a staff person.
“We came up with a job description, qualifications and all that and the next step was how are we going to do this? So the board had a meeting and they asked me to excuse myself and when I came back they offered me the position because I had been doing all of this anyway. To be paid for something you’re volunteering to do anyway is wonderful. I had the knowledge to do everything.”
It was perfect timing. Gillette was ready to leave the corporate world.
“For me, being in corporate American playing hard ball with the big boys in a corner office in downtown Denver, it was so refreshing to step into a position where I knew and trusted everyone and had the total support of my board of directors; and so this core group, we have been together for 18 years now.”
Although the process of organizing the powwow has become routine, there are still challenges. In 2003, a major blizzard during the three-day event wiped out the organization’s operating budget and it’s still trying to recover. The pow wow’s annual budget is around $300,000. Gillette fund raises all year long.
While the pow wow is low on funds, it’s huge on honors. It was selected by the National Museum of the American Indian for the Local Legacy Project, has won numerous awards, and Gillette was recently honored by the City of Denver for its 150th anniversary as one of the 150 people who have made a difference in the city.
There are so many satisfying aspects to the job, Gillette said, especially her daughter’s involvement.
“My daughter loved to dance; she began when she was 3 years old and still dances. She’s a shawl dancer and made five different fancy shawls and a jingle dress. She was the first Miss Indian Nation. It is intensely gratifying to see that my daughter knows where she comes from and who she is and it makes her comfortable in her job in corporate America today, because she knows she can leave that and come home to her Indian roots.”
“And not only that,” Gillette added, “she’s given me two beautiful granddaughters – 10 and 14 – and both of them have been dancing.”
And, finally, after years of organizing pow wows, Gillette herself became a dancer.
“In our tribe, you have to have the right to get out with the veterans and dance and I finally had that done for myself in a ceremony in 1992.”
And she’s still dancing.