Powwow attendance exceeds expectations; multi-day event mulled for 2011

       Eugene (Redhawk) Orner said he was getting hot and tired Sept. 25, but he was also feeling pleased.

Before a crowd that eventually totaled 2,500 people, American Indian participants in the Garden of the Gods Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site Powwow parade in for the start of the traditional Grand Entry Sept. 25. It was the first major Indian event in the Garden since 1978.
Westside Pioneer photo

       As the sole gourd dancer for the first 1 ˝ hours of the Garden of the Gods Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site Traditional Powwow, the Westside resident and master of ceremonies was in a good spot to watch a crowd that kept growing larger than anyone had expected for the first major American Indian event in the Garden of the Gods in 32 years.
       “I was overjoyed at that kind of response,” he said. “The public really supported this.”
       Added Jim (Blackwolf) Ramirez, another of the lead organizers, “I knew it would be very good and special, but it was actually phenomenal.”
       By the end of the seven-hour get-together, according to tabulations by the site's volunteer Living History Association (LHA), nearly 2,500 people (1,800 paid) had attended. The Indian response was also strong, with participants including the Southern Ute, Southern and Northern Cheyenne, Dineh, Osage, Mohawk, Apache, Lakota, Crow, Cherokee, Delaware, Picuris, Chippewa, Navajo, Quapaw and Yaqui. There were about 50 dancers in all, according to Ramirez.

Gene (Redhawk) Orner performs during the Blanket Dance, during which people were asked to put money on a blanket (background) to help compensate the powwow's drum group.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Also on hand were two dozen or so Indian artisans/vendors, plus various presentations and demonstrations. The dancing was in a circle lined by haybales for spectators on the field near the Rock Ledge House.
       LHA President Ron (Red Badger) Wright chuckled wryly at how his group had printed only a few hundred programs to hand out free to attendees. “Those were gone in 30 minutes,” he said. “It was definitely something that was overwhelming to us all.”
       The LHA had based its attendance expectations on First Nations Day, a low-key American Indian gathering at Rock Ledge the past several Octobers which typically drew no more than 300 people. At the request of the local American Indian community, the powwow this year replaced First Nations on the Rock Ledge schedule, with the goal of expanding the offerings and attracting a larger crowd.
       Larger-scale organizing was aided by the recent formation of the Indian Center and the establishment of an office in the Westside's Trinity United Methodist Church. Ramirez himself is a member of the boards of both the center and the LHA.

Kenny Sweetwater (left) and Elvira Sweetwater (right) were the designated Head Dancers for the event. This photo was taken during an Intertribal Dance.
Westside Pioneer photo

       “Everything came together through the Indian Center,” Wright said. “We said, 'Let's try this and see if it will work.' It's been an experience, but I'm proud of the way it turned out, very proud.”
       The gate receipts not only boosted the LHA's continuing fund drive to keep the ranch open, it got the local Indian community thinking about expanding the powwow to a two- or even three-day event next year. “Then we won't be rushed as much,” Ramirez said.
       He described the feelings of the American Indians at the event. “So many of the people who participated were thrilled, they just wanted to stay. They hung out even after it was done.”
       “It was very spiritual, very moving,” Wright added.
       If the powwow becomes a multi-day gathering, it might someday rival the 1970s version, which annually lasted three days and featured competitive dancing for cash prizes in several categories. The numbers back then make the Sept. 25 event seem small: Orner, a long-time area resident, estimated the three-day attendance totals used to exceed 50,000 people.
       But a powwow of such size would be more expensive (largely because of the prize money) and take more work and sponsors, both Ramirez and Orner pointed out. For now, Ramirez is happy with the way the non-competitive powwow got “back to the basics, bringing the community together to celebrate.”

Jim Bear Running (left), a Marine veteran, holds the Warrior Staff steady while Jim (Blackwolf) Ramirez (center) and Ron (Red Badger) Wright secure it to a rebar stake.
Westside Pioneer photo

       Asked about why the event proved so popular, Orner spoke of a pent-up demand. “There were hundreds of people who attended the powwows in the past [1978 and earlier] who've been waiting for this to happen,” he said.
       Orner has previously talked to the Westside Pioneer about how the city banned the city park's annual powwows after the 1978 event resulted in noise complaints and incidents with participants getting “tipsy” in town. But he also thinks the city overreacted, especially considering that the Indians perceive the Garden as a sacred place.
       Orner said relations started improving in the 1990s, with the Garden of the Gods Master Plan revision, which he was part of. It removed commercial enterprises from the Garden - which had long been an Indian complaint - and, thanks to local land owner Lyda Hill, made possible the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center just outside the park at Gateway Road and 30th Street.
       Also in the 1990s, Rock Ledge Ranch developed the American Indian Area as one of its regular attractions, and Orner is among those who have volunteered there.
       This year's powwow was endorsed by city officials, including Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera.
       As for the gourd dance at the Sept. 25 powwow, the reason Orner was out there alone was that others who had said they would participate didn't show up. A strict rule for that dance is that participants have to be warriors or war veterans, which Orner is. So it was either go it alone or disappoint the crowd. “Once I got out there, I had to keep doing it,” he said.

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