Social Distance Powwow takes indigenous gatherings and traditions into cyberspace

by Nick Gonzales

The coronavirus pandemic is a truly global problem, and Native American communities aren’t immune to the effects of social-distancing efforts to “flatten the curve” of the virus’ spread. The same restrictions that have banned or greatly limited public gatherings have also canceled and postponed events like powwows, including the massive Gathering of Nations that would have been held in Albuquerque from April 23-30.

This hasn’t put a complete kibosh on opportunities for indigenous peoples to share their cultures, though, and quite a few individuals are thwarting the virus by moving their celebrations into the digital realm.

The Social Distance Powwow, a Facebook group, was created on March 17 by Dan Simonds, a member of the Mashantucket Pequot, and has grown to over 115,000 members. Its stated mission is to provide a forum “for all to share their creator-given talents and be supported,” including vendors, dancers, and singers affected by the shutdown.

The group has also spread to Twitter and Instagram.

“The whole idea was to maintain that super important cultural connection while we are all having to do the exact opposite, being isolated and distancing,” Stephanie Hebert, one of the group’s administrators, told AZcentral. “It’s also to help protect those vendors, our emcees, our area directors, who may be losing a lot of business (and) who financially struggle when these events go away.”

Diane Holyan, a resident of Hogback, New Mexico, east of Shiprock, is one of many who are thankful for the group. A healthcare worker and jingle dancer, she posted a photo of herself in a jingle dress to the group. The caption spoke of Holyan’s gratitude toward the Ojibwa people for creating the dance and the personal meaning of the dress she was wearing, and it asked people to be careful about spreading the virus and requested prayers for the Navajo people as they face the pandemic.

Before disappearing into the sea of other posts, Holyan’s post received over 5,000 responses, all of which were positive.

“I made that post asking for prayers … and they blew me away. My post went global … I have people that messaged me from France, from all over. And I thought, ‘Wow, they’re praying for my people, and they’re praying for the whole world – it’s not just for my native people. It’s for everyone. We’re all in this together; it’s affecting us everywhere,’” she said.

While powwow ceremonies such as jingle dress dancing double as competitive sports, they also provide emotional and spiritual support to the communities. According to tradition, the jingle dance came to an Ojibwa chief in a dream as a means of healing his sick daughter, Holyan said.

Old-style jingle dresses, such as her own, and dancing are done to mimic the original ceremony without adding anything too fast or fancy. Contemporary jingle dress dancers have added plumes and extravagant colors to their dresses, and graceful spinning and movements to the dances.

The dress Holyan wore in her photo also symbolizes healing for her – she commissioned the dress after the death of her father so that she could dance as part of her personal grieving process.

“It has really helped me because … I love dancing, and that’s kind of helped my healing process,” she said.

Like Holyan’s post, the group contains thousands of other photos and videos of its members often showing off their regalia and dances. The crowd isn’t the only thing that the online powwow borrows from its in-person cousins. It also features a grand entry and general sessions with drummers and dancers streamed live in specific threads.

As of March 30, the group also has a marketplace where indigenous vendors can sell the wares they’d be bringing to gatherings any other year. Going forward, the group will be hosting themed weeks with topics such as storytelling, Native history, and traditional foods, as well as information from tribal communities throughout North America, Hebert said in a press release.

“Everything on there is for the people; it’s not for themselves, it’s not for them to show off what they have, what they can do. It’s for the people around the world … sharing in the dances and their prayers,” said Holyan. “It’s amazing how through the internet we come together like that, even though we’re in our own homes.”

Nick Gonzales


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