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A work of ‘living art’ defines the Shining Mountains Powwow in Aspen this weekend

 Children participate in the Aspen Indigenous Foundation's Shining Mountains Powwow at Aspen High School. The event returns with dances, drumming, singing and vendors on May 27 and 28, 2023.
Courtesy of Joe Center
Children participate in the Aspen Indigenous Foundation's Shining Mountains Powwow at Aspen High School. The event returns with dances, drumming, singing and vendors on May 27 and 28, 2023.

The Shining Mountains Powwow returns to Aspen High School on May 27 and 28 with dancing, drumming and singing contests as well as food and artisan vendors.

Kaya Williams spoke with event emcee Steve LaPointe of the Sicangu Lakota tribe and Aspen Indigenous Foundation executive director Deanne Vitrac-Kessler about the experience.

Kaya Williams: Well, Steve, I'd love to start with you, and how would you describe the experience of actually attending one of these powwows as someone who's really involved in the participation of it?

Steve LaPointe: To the people who are going to attend, if this is their first time, they're going to be seeing a lot of deep-rooted historical, spiritual happenings going on with the dances and the songs. And being around a drum, in person — not on any type of recording device, they don't do any of those justice — so being there live, you get to to really feel the spirit of what we're doing, get to feel the good vibrations of the drum and the heartbeat of what's what's going on.

You're going to get to see a lot of people smiling and really enjoying themselves in a really good space, and with that, you're gonna see a lot of great positivity. And it's almost magical. And every powwow that I've participated in is one of the best culminations of the week, if not the year. And having another one, especially in the mountains there, it's a very beautiful, very beautiful setting, and it becomes something you want to go to again and again, and it kind of becomes an addiction, because it's so great and beautiful.

From my perspective in seeing the people who come in from the communities to come and enjoy themselves, it iss one of the most rewarding things. So to the people of Aspen, they're going to have a really great time.

Williams: And what does it mean to you — you mentioned, you know, having these deep-rooted kind of historical practices represented still today, it's 2023 — what does it mean to you to be able to have places where this is still celebrated, and that history is carried on in the present?

LaPointe: Well, when you look at our history, it's very traumatic. And when you see our people, we don't really reflect that at some of these events. We do have moments where we have to recognize things. We only got our First Amendment rights in 1978. We got our citizenship after World War I, about 100 years ago, after our great grandfathers participated in World War One.

And so when you see all these things [at the powwow], you don't really see negativity. You're going to see a lot of traditional teachings being taught at the drums, you're going to see a lot of our dancers portraying their family style, some of them eventell their family story. The deep rooted songs, some are passed down from generation to generation, or some are even hundreds of years old. Some were created recently.

So we have a lot of different styles. We’re ever changing. I call it the ever-changing art of the powwow. Every season, there's a new type of beadwork somebody just created, there's a lot of different seamstresses creating a contemporary twist on their tribes’ history, and all these will be displayed there. So you're going to see an amalgamation of everything that we're about.

And not only that, we're going to prove to everyone that we're still here. We're also professionals too, so you're going to see us at work, your children's schools, I'm an educator, so it's my arena director as well, and we're your neighbors, we're still here, we've never left. So we're not a piece of history. We're living history. So you're gonna see that on display.

Williams: You know, it strikes me that kids in school, when they learn about Native American history, it is often focused on that traumatic side of things, which is definitely worth recognizing. But do you find that people are ever surprised by how joyful and positive a powwow can be?

LaPointe: You know, watching spectators, they are. So when you put that into perspective, all the things that our people have been through and continue to struggle [with] to this day — when they see us all in a great place, great mindset, laughing, enjoying ourselves, really adhering to our protocol, but at the same time living in a great moment, and they come to elevate themselves with us and dance with us, those are the great moments that we cherish, is communities coming together and joining themselves with us and becoming one.

So when we have intertribal or a round dance, we usually invite the wider community. When that happens, you see something magical happen. It really becomes a united type of spiritual energy. And people walk away feeling very empowered and very knowledgeable and seeing beyond the textbook and beyond the movies and see the real us. And when that happens, it's very humanizing. It's very amazing. And we gain a lot of new community, friends and networking.

And when you come to one of our events, you're going to see that community building is going to be probably the most forefront thing that's going to be taken away from this — is that we're coming together. And even friends who haven't seen each other in the same town seeing themselves there, having a good time, those reconnections and that community is what's really important. And you'll see that displayed here.

Williams: Now Deanne, maybe you can lend some insight here. But Steve, feel free to chime in. What should people expect as far as attendance numbers — where are people coming from to come to this and how many new people are coming?

Deanne Vitrac-Kessler: We’re hoping 100, 150 dancers, drummers are going to come. Also we have about 15 vendors and they bring their beautiful jewelry, turquoise and silver and beaded work and all the beautiful Native American Indian arts and crafts. We'll have also some food vendors with Navajo fry breads and Indian tacos. So it's really an immersion, like Steve said, in the Native American Indian culture.

It's amazing when you think that we bring all of that, that those people, they come from all over — some, you know, from hundreds of miles away, different nations coming together — to our little mountain town. Basically, it's served on a platter here for the community. It's absolutely stunning. And it's amazing that people would even make that trip to bring that beauty and talents to us.

LaPointe: Yeah. As far as spectator attendance, it’s really up to the community. And like Deanne said, it's hard to find what we're bringing anywhere else, unless you're in a major metropolitan city, or on a reservation. So this is an opportunity to see something you don't normally get to see every day in person. You don't get to, again, feel what you're going to see there and what you're going to experience on video. You have to go there, and to bring children and families — it's a very safe, welcoming environment.

And all these things kind of culminate into what Deanne said, a living art. We want all of Aspen there, obviously, but it's up to the community there. And we're hoping that what we bring is enticing enough to bring a lot of dancers and singers. So that's our goal, is to make it the most amazing powwow experience ever, to bring continuous support from not only the community but from the powwow community as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Tickets to the powwow are $10 for adults, $5 for students and free for veterans and kids 12 and under. For more information about the event, visit aspenaif.org.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.