When leadership within Cal State Long Beach’s American Indian Studies department canceled what would have been the 50th Pow Wow celebration at the campus three years ago due to COVID-19, they knew the absence of the revered gathering would be tough for Native American communities.
American Indian powwows, a tradition among Native nations across North America for hundreds of years, brought tribes together in a celebration of life, culture and community. Today, these events are some of the few safe spaces for indigenous communities—and the urban generations that share their heritage—to freely speak their languages, celebrate their ancestry and share their customs with the greater community.
Of the many powwows celebrated in Southern California, the CSULB Pow Wow—also called the CSU Puvungna Pow Wow because of the sacred plot of land located on the campus—is the largest and longest-standing American Indian gathering in the region. And now, after a three-year hiatus, the celebration has returned.
The CSULB Pow Wow, happening on Saturday and Sunday, March 11-12, is one of the last major celebrations of its kind to return since COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings lifted. This was, in part, because leadership wanted to ensure that the event could safely culminate in a celebration fit for its 50th anniversary at the campus.
Both daylong celebrations will feature robust programming with traditional singing, dancing, drumming and myriad cultural experiences that have made the event one of the most distinct and diverse in the state. Over 6,000 people attended the last Pow Wow in 2019, traveling from all over California and the Southwest and as far as Michigan and Canada, according to the college. Officials expect a similarly high turnout this year.
“California has been culturally and linguistically the most diverse place in North America for thousands of years. There are over 100 languages and a similar number of federally recognized tribes—more than any other state in the United States,” said Craig Stone, retired professor and current director of the American Indian Studies program at CSULB. “All of these different peoples come together and coalesce in this form of cultural expression.”
There are certain mainstays within the festival that organizers uphold every year that also provides a window into the origins of the CSULB Pow Wow. Gourd dancing, for instance, will open the festival again on both days. Though gourd dancing is a prevailing tradition within powwows, having this dance done to open the festival, Stone said, is more commonly practiced at powwows in Oklahoma. Native Oklahoma families who created the Golden State Gourd Society, which now resides in Long Beach, brought the tradition to the campus in the 1970s. Today, though, the dance is uniquely Long Beach.
“We have this mixture that is truly reflective of our community and our dance is reflective of our community,” Stone said. “It’s something that’s trying to honor the communities and those families and the relationships that have been built here.”
The grand entry ceremony, also on both days, is a procession of flags, head dancers and tribe leaders adorned in their tribe’s regalia. Audiences will see the use of tobacco, “a kind of spiritual food,” Stone said, to bless the arena, where many of the ceremonies and performances will take place.
“Each person will come into the arena, they’ll take a little bit of tobacco and as they dance, they’ll spread it on the grass and leave a prayer so that this is a place where you come with a good heart, a good mind, and a good stomach,” he explained.
Powwows are as much a celebration of life as they are a remembrance. This year, to honor those who died from COVID and other causes in the last three years, there will be a special healing ceremony led by “Head Woman Dancer” Pamela James as well as other acknowledgments throughout the event.
“We have just had so many losses in Indian country,” Stone said, noting that COVID-19 hit Native American communities particularly hard. “Their lifespan has dropped down to 65 in the United States after COVID. So, we want to honor those people and those families.”
Generations of families have attended and participated the CSULB Pow Wow since it was started by students in 1969. In its early years, it was part of a campus-wide open house called Kaleidoscope before becoming a stand-alone celebration.
Stone, now 67, was a teenager when he visited his first CSULB Pow Wow on a whim with his drum group the Mentone Singers. The celebration inhabited a patch of grass on upper campus, and benches made of cinderblocks and wood planks were used as seating. Small ribbons were given out as prizes for winning dancers in competitions.
“It’s really homegrown,” Stone said. “Back then it was just families coming to support those students.”
Today the festival attracts Native and urban communities, alumni and students from across California and the U.S. with crowds that encompasses the entire upper quad on the campus. Attendees now watch the performances from bleacher seating and roam dozens of pop-up stalls and vendors selling traditional foods, life frybread and mutton stew, and shop handmade art, gifts and other wares. Common prizes for competitions now feature large cash sums and handmade gifts.
Each year the festival is reverently and carefully crafted by the American Indian Studies program and the American Indian Students Council and Student Services organizations, among other university groups. This year attendees can expect a special performance by the college’s Pow Wow committee, comprised of the American Indian Student Council. As for Stone, this will be his third year performing as “Head Male Dancer” at the powwow—the last time was in 1989—in recognition of his 39 years of teaching at the school and 40 years participating in the celebration.
The CSULB Pow Wow is free to attend and open to all. The event opens on both days at 11 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m. on Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday. Free parking is available in the General Lots. Click here for more information.