Most Austinites should know about a 12-hour party with great food, dancing, and jaw-dropping fashion, right? Yet, the Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival, now in its 29th year and one of the largest single-day powwows in the country, still flies under the radar for many. On November 12, the Travis County Expo Center will host a major celebration for indigenous Austinites, travelers in the know, and anyone who wants to get better acquainted with the culture.
The powwow is open to any interested public, and focuses on this opportunity for cultural exchange. “All the people that haven’t seen a powwow before, they get to come and share in our tradition and our culture of dancing and having a good time,” said a speaker in a promotional video for the 2021 event.
Powwows are essentially meetings or festivals (and of note to Southerners, are often closely related to rodeos), serving purposes that have changed as the standing of Indigenous people changed amongst each other and American society at large. Now that tribes have dispersed and come to share a new kind of postcolonial identity, events like the Austin Powwow are non-specific to any one tribe, emphasizing instead of formalism, an opportunity to celebrate and keep in touch with a wide variety of traditions.
This event features dancers from across the United States headed by a married couple based in Houston: Brody Screaming Eagle (Eastern Band Cherokee/Ojibwe) and Tania Screaming Eagle (Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara). The Gourd Dance, a men’s social dance, is led by Jordan Beartrack (Kiowa/Cheyenne) from Apache, Oklahoma. Powwow dancers come in ornate costumes and are judged on a point system.
Alongside the competitive and social festivities, a large market brings plenty of wares to browse over the many hours. Food vendors bring fry bread, popcorn, tacos, and other fair treats, while craft vendors sell jewelry, fashion, and home decor. An application for vendors on the website points out that booths are by invitation only, with priority to returning vendors, so standards are very high and visitors are likely to find favorites from past years.
Great Promise for American Indians, one of the organizing partners of the powwow, frames it as an educational opportunity in line with its goals to preserve American Indian culture while supporting ongoing programs for the health and education of its families. It presents the Great Promise Dancers, a troupe that demonstrates music and dance on tour, promising authentic cultural experiences.
The Austin Powwow and American Indian Heritage Festival will be held at the Travis County Expo Center on November 12, from 9 am to 9 pm. Anyone is welcome to attend. Tickets ($7 online, kids free) are available on Eventbrite.