Powwow in Aspen shows what brings indigenous peoples together in community and sharing of culture

Dancers show off their regalia during the Shining Mountains Powwow on Saturday, May 27, 2023, inside the Aspen High School gymnasium.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The first sign a guest is in the right place is a sleek, black, vintage Mustang with the license plate “War Pony.”

Even at the bottom of the hill in Aspen High school’s parking lot, you can hear the pounding drums. Inside, dancers flow across the basketball court in an explosion of color, energy, music, and songs performed by tribal members across the nation.

At the third Shining Mountains Powwow, the emcee invited audience members to join the dance. One mom mastered the steps while carrying a toddler and holding onto her dog’s leash.

Organizers explained that indigenous dancers are judged on their regalia, which can take years to create and evolve, as well as their skills and grace.

Revaline Nez of the Dine Nation watched her little girl dance confidently in the children’s competition. They live in Flagstaff, where Nez said tribal members meet often to build community and to learn the ancient dances and cooking and regalia design. 

Her grade-schooler daughter’s regalia was purple and sapphire blue with a silver belt and skirt trimmed with silver “jingles” or tiny bells.

“Jingles are popular to use in healing dances,” Nez said. “As she grows older and taller, we’ll add material to this and adapt it with symbols that are meaningful to her life.”

Jacob Gonzales had aqua-hued fringe on his regalia to symbolize grass swaying in wind. In some sacred dances, he carries an eagle claw scepter he stores in a polished wooden box. He loves performing and learned to dance as a toddler.

Aspen has a second chance to visit the powwow Sunday starting at 1 p.m. for $10, with kids under 12 and veterans free.

Drums are played during the Shining Mountains Powwow on Saturday.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Jacob’s older sister Rosalyn didn’t start till age 16. Her grandmother attended a western school where “unfortunately students were colonized and their culture was suppressed. My mom, a Navajo, didn’t grow up around powwows.” 

But their Apache father got them interested in dancing, and they are studying ancient stories and beliefs. 

“But sometimes I do have a sadness about the years I didn’t feel that connection to my culture, a sense of loss,” Rosalyn said as she put her arm around her brother.

Becky Widener, Apache Tewa, grew up in big cities, where she said it could be a challenge to connect to her culture. But she found a unique path by studying traditional healing and producing soaps, oils and even natural deodorant made from sage, yucca, parsley, kaolin clay, olive, and coconut oils.

She created soap to heal her husband’s psoriasis.

“I harvested and crushed the flowers myself, use essential oils and use aloe vera gel instead of water. It took me four years to perfect the recipe,” she said.

There are cute alabaster white soaps shaped like hearts and ghosts that kids likely would love. She also sells online at Becky’s Soap and Candle Co.

Drummer and singer Marcus Cyrus, of the Apsaalocke Nation, grew up in Montana, where “I was dancing as soon as I could walk.”

His headdress was given to him as one of several rituals honoring his passage into manhood. His elegant regalia includes fabric depicting blue and yellow songbirds against a pale sky. When asked if creating such beauty is time consuming and sometimes tiring, he grimaced, politely.

“That’s a very Western view. This isn’t a job, doesn’t feel exhausting, like work,” he replied. “It’s energizing, inspiring.”

He added that songbirds have a significant role in the ancient stories, but he was asked to come sing for the crowd before he could explain.

A major force behind the powwow, Alvin Long Soldier of the Oglala Dakota nation, said he hopes to share those stories with indigenous teens if his dream of an Aspen summer camp where the ancient dances, drumming, and healing are taught. Songbirds were seen as spirits of the beloved dead who make the transition from life gentler.

He said that when his father died, a meadow lark came to the window and sang for him. Soldier told the bird, “I miss you, but it’s time for you to be with my mom.” 

When his own son died, a nearby tree suddenly filled with larks that sang their hearts out for the grieving, he said.


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