After the global pandemic canceled most major powwows in the United States, Native American dancers, singers, and vendors turned to virtual powwows to fill the void. With the cancelations, many maintained connection to their culture and each other by competing and sharing videos online.
In some cases the online powwows bring small financial relief. Dan Simonds normally spends his summer traveling and selling jewelry. He estimates he lost seven to ten thousand dollars in booth fees due to cancellations. The sudden loss of income is what inspired him to co-create a Facebook group, “the Social Distance Powwow,” as a venue for vendors to sell their goods.
It quickly became a place not only for vendors, but for tribal members across Indian Country to come together and help each other through this unprecedented time. “I was tired of being depressed. I needed to move and there was nothing I could do but dance it out,” said Yikanee Sampson, a Dine nurse from Utah. Sampson said with the stress of working during Covid-19 and losing two grandparents from the virus, she needed to pour her grief and exhaustion into a positive outlet. For her, dancing relieves stress and she hopes her dance brought positivity to others. In the spring, families posted their graduates and folks from around the country responded with congratulations. The online powwow became a place to celebrate, connect, and sometimes mourn.
Tribute videos flooded the site after a world champion hoop dancer, Nakotah LaRance, 30, passed away suddenly from a rock climbing accident. LaRance taught youth in New Mexico to hoop dance. After his passing coworkers and children shared what he taught them with the virtual world. The Ulibarri family brought their five children to the outskirts of Santa Fe, New Mexico, to record a video of their children hoop dancing, dedicating the performance to LaRance. The kids attended the Lighting Boy Foundation program where LaRance taught. “He taught these kids everything,” said Eric Ulibarri, the children’s father. The online powwow gave the children the opportunity to perform and gave the family the chance to thank their teacher publicly, Ulibarri said.
Online powwows can’t replace spending time with family, eating good food, and camping, but they do offer a way for individuals to keep celebrating life. Joe Upham, a Blackfeet chicken dancer said he missed how the powwows brought his family and friends together the most. “Even when I was in the Air Force, I would always come back in the summer for the powwows. It was always good to see people I haven’t seen in a long time. I get to see them and be in a place where we’re all doing what we love,” said Upham. “It just makes your heart happy.” Upham decided to post a video to an online powwow when his friend convinced him to dance after a rough week. It was the first time he danced all year. He placed first in the online competition and took home $400. He said the pandemic has been difficult, but dancing puts his problems in perspective and leaves him feeling refreshed and recharged. “It’s nice to have a break and do what you love to do,” said Upham. “And it could always be worse, but I have my daughter and my truck runs and that’s good enough for me right now.”