HOLLYWOOD — A traditionally elaborate grand entry marked the opening of the 45th annual Seminole Tribal Fair and Pow Wow. The Seminole Color Guard led the procession of Tribe officials, royalty and 234 dancers decked out in colorful regalia to the center of the Hard Rock Live arena. Eleven drum groups, with up to a dozen members each, set up their circles on the floor perimeter.
The three-day, public and free celebration of Native arts and culture, held Feb. 5-7 in Hollywood, offered much more than beautiful beadwork, patchwork, wood carvings, jewelry and Seminole cuisine; it was a spirited competition among Native American dancers and drummers from throughout Indian Country.
“I take pride in this,” said Brighton Board Rep. Larry Howard. “The atmosphere of all the Native American dancers from all over the nation is great. I hope people leave here with more of an understanding of our culture.”
Host drums The Boyz and Yellowhammer provided a soundtrack for opening festivities.
“It’s good to hear the heartbeat of the drums,” said first-time attendee and Immokalee administrator Ray Yzaguirre III.
With more than $150,000 in prize money at stake, competition in the arena was serious but friendly. A lengthy list of rules outlined how the dancers and drums would be judged. Points awarded from the start of the grand entry included regalia.
“Should any major part of the regalia (bustle, eagle feather, etc.) fall to the floor during the contest, dancer must disqualify him/herself voluntarily or be dismissed by the head dance judge for that contest session only,” the dance rules stated.
Drum groups were required to have eight to 12 singers, who also drum. Groups had to be ready to sing at all times.
Dancers and drums competed in two rounds, or sessions, during the pow-wow. Head dance judge Randall Paskemin and head drum judge Algin Scabby Robe did not actually judge the event; they chose five judges for each category from the contestants in house.
“We choose excellent people who know what they are looking at or hearing,” said Paskemin, of the Plains Cree Tribe. “The judges need knowledge and fairness.”
To keep the process impartial, judges could not be related to the contestants they judged. Dance judges looked for rhythm, style, unique regalia, steps, timing and stopping on time. If dancers failed to stop at the exact moment the drum stopped, they were disqualified. Every song lasted two to five minutes and consisted of four verses, Paskemin said.
“They follow by ear and know when to stop,” he said. “We try to get different judges for each session and if there is a tie-breaker, we get new judges.”
Judges observed from the dance floor periphery or behind the drums and took notes on the performances. Verna Street, a fancy shawl dance competitor, was one of the chosen judges. She said she carefully watched the dancers’ footwork.
“I’m looking for them to be on beat and dance their style appropriately,” said Street, of the Cherokee Tribe of North Carolina. “I also look at their outfit and see if they stop on time.”
Pow-wow, or pau wau, means a gathering of people coming together to trade. According to the Indigenous Institute of the Americas, the modern pow-wow formed in the early 1800s with dances that “allowed warriors to reenact their brave deeds for all the members of the Tribe to witness.” With the advent of reservations in North America, tribal customs and religions were outlawed. The grass dance was one of the only celebrations allowed.
“They tried to take our language and our culture,” said Richard Milda, of Minnesota, who is Pima, Crow and Oglala Lakota. “We use eagle feathers to hold onto our culture as best we can.”
Milda, a prairie chicken dancer, uses both eagle and pheasant feathers in his regalia. The chicken dance mimics the jerky, birdlike movements of the prairie chicken. Judges search for those specific steps during judging.
“Dance tells a story,” said Milda, who has been dancing since age 11. “We are supposed to walk in a humble way, but we are human. Dance is our avenue to show off.”
The culture of dance is passed down to children at a very early age. At Tribal Fair, dressed in their finest regalia, children ages 6 and younger flaunted newly learned moves in the tiny tots dance. Babies still too young to walk, let alone dance, were carried around the floor as their peers performed.
Many dancers attend pow-wows across North America throughout the year.
Melvin and Rosa John, of Alberta, Canada, attend about 22 annually.
“When I first started I was told we dance for those who can’t dance anymore,” said Melvin John, of the Cree Tribe. “So we dance for them and lift their spirits. Drums are the medicine and when you hear them, any aches and pains go away.”
About 2,500 students from schools from around the state, including Fort Myers, Immokalee, Belle Glade, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, attended opening day. The Ahfachkee School in Big Cypress also sent a contingent of students.
“I love to see the school kids here,” said Hollywood Board Rep. Steve Osceola. “This should be the biggest crowd we’ve seen in the last 10 years.”
Students and visitors throughout the weekend were treated to wildlife shows, alligator wrestling, Seminole storytelling, Seminole warfare tactics demonstrations and traditional hoop dancing.
Concerts by Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band, Elizabeth Cook, Derek Miller, the Osceola Brothers Band and Cowbone Band added to the festivities.
Tribal Fair also included for the first time the Native Reel Cinema Fest, which featured films by Steven Paul Judd and appearances by actors Gil Birmingham and Bronson Pelletier and musician Spencer Battiest.