For years, the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center has been hosting a pow wow in the greater Pittsburgh area, celebrating their culture and inspiring the youth and younger generation. Krisa Spangler, who is a head judge at the pow wow, says that it started out as a small gathering of local people. But about 12 years ago, they changed the pow wow to have a dance contest which has pulled a larger crowd of dancers and vendors. Now roughly 1,500-2,000 people attend the pow wow each year in addition to the numerous people in the dance competition, musicians, and vendors.
Traditionally, a pow wow is a sacred social gathering between Native American tribes to form alliances, conference together, and share their culture. The first recorded pow wows are from the late 1800s. Contemporary pow wows are now usually public events to dance, sing, and recognize Native American cultures. They often include dance contests and happen all over the country.
Michael Simms, a Pittsburgh-native, has been the pow wow coordinator for the past 12 years. He shares that the “pow wows for us are like a gathering of friends and family. We come together from all different tribes and share our dances and songs.” Simms says he started pow wowing when he was a month and a half old and still pow wows to this day. Both Simms and Spangler say they travel every year for the pow wows in the summer and fall. “Yup, we got on a plane and went to a pow wow,” says Simms about a pow wow they went to in Florida.
This year, the pow wow will be held from Sat., Sept. 24 to Sun., Sept 25 at the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center. At the pow wow, you’ll get to experience the dance competition as well as food and market vendors. Spangler says that they get vendors locally but also reach all the way up to Canada. They sell handcrafted items, clothing, and jewelry as well as food booths. Spangler says people always look forward to the food vendors that feature traditional Native American food like Buffalo burgers, fry bread, and chili.
At the COTRAIC pow wow, there will be an all-ages contest in different dance categories from 55+ down to under six. “I love watching our youth come out and participate in their culture," says Spangler. "Growing up with that culture, I think it’s really important to praise our youth that want to continue the tradition.” Simms also stated how he loves watching the kids perform and seeing what they’ve learned each year from the older generations.
Simms says that COTRAIC’s pow wow is one of the last held in the year for Western Pennsylvania, which means a number of different people and tribes come to visit and contest. “It’s nice to see our pow wow thriving. We’ve built this pow wow to where dancers and tribes come from all over to visit.” Simms says they’ve even pulled dancers all the way from Ontario, Canada. Spangler says, “I love to watch the dance competitions. It’s unique, even if you don’t know what you are looking for.” She says the regalias, the outfits worn by dancers, are all individualized for that specific person and what they like.
Besides the pow wow, the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center provides for those in the greater Pittsburgh metropolitan area and hopes to promote the socio-economic development of the Native American community and others who experience similar types of economic difficulties. Founded in 1969, they host many different programs, the largest being their Head Start and Early Head Start programs. These programs help low-income children through classrooms, education centers, and their partners of local childcare places. Spangler says she’s recently been working with their Speakers Bureau, as well as at local universities like the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, to talk about Native American culture.
Spangler and Simms shared some tips with Pittsburgh City Paper for first-time visitors to the pow wow. Spangler says, “Just come and enjoy yourself.” There will be an emcee who will lead the pow wow and inform the audience on what’s being performed or who can join in. She says that is definitely a family-friendly event and not to be afraid to ask questions and engage in conversation with vendors, dancers, singers, and other participants.
Simms suggests that if you come out, try to stay as long as you can because so many different things happen throughout the day. “We start out with some intertribal dancing.” This is dancing where everyone is invited to join in. After that, stay to watch the kids' contest in the afternoon, and the adults' contest in the evening. And more contesting happens on Sunday though they wrap up earlier in the day.
“It’s a great experience to experience the tip of another culture," Spangler says, "through dance, food, and music.”
Council of Three Rivers 43rd Annual Pow Wow. Sat., Sept 24-Sun., Sept 25. Council of Three Rivers American Indian Center. 120 Charles St., Dorseyville. cotraic.org/pow-wow