Cover Story

During the Veterans Powow the 45+ age group competes in the Bird Dancing Special at the Salt River Ball Field.

The Veterans Recognition Powwow

By Dustin Hughes
Au-Authm Action News

The blur of vibrant colors, a cool breeze, nostrils filling with the aroma of popovers, and the sound of voices harmonizing filled the air during the seventh annual Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Veterans Recognition Social Powwow, which took place April 12-14. According to the Veterans Powwow Committee, the event was a success.

The Veterans Recognition Powwow was an idea that came from the mind of Joel Jefferson, a Community veteran who is now deceased but lives on through his memorial dance at the powwow. Jefferson’s plan was to have a social powwow hosted by American Legion “Bushmasters” Post #114 with the ultimate goal of honoring and recognizing all Community veterans for their service in the United States Armed Forces. The event originally started out as a Mother’s Day powwow that was held in May; but while the event was a success, the temperatures in May aren’t so kind. After much thought and planning, the powwow committee ended up moving the powwow to April, thus resulting in the Veterans Social Powwow.

Jefferson’s vision lives on through the powwow committee, ensuring that the powwow doesn’t lose sight of its original intent. One of the special dances is the Joel Jefferson Memorial Dance, where dancers compete in traditional Southern Straight.

In addition, the Women’s Spotlight Fancy and Men’s Spotlight Fancy dances were added to the competition. The Spotlight dances are done in the dark. In the pitch black, with the spotlight on the lone dancer, drum groups sing trick songs and try to fool the dancer, who must display specific footwork in cadence with the beat.

Because it was the first time it was done here on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Spotlight Special was a much-anticipated dance and a crowd favorite. Community member and Head Boy Dancer R.J. Lopez started the special off with an extraordinary display, followed by the Women’s Spotlight Fancy. For a list of winners, please see the sidebar.

For the first time the Veterans Recognition Powwow featured a Bird singing and dancing competition for all age groups. Singers showed up from all over the region in their ribbon shirts and jeans. Dancers were required to compete wearing traditional attire.

“For our first time, it was great to see the different generations lined up in their [ribbon] shirts. It was a great turnout,” said SRPMIC Veterans Representative Pacer Reina, a member of the powwow committee. “It was also neat to see the tin cans come out and showcase the ‘Piipaa’ songs. The tin-can songs are the modern way of saying it, but they all originate from the people.” Contestants Hostiin Reina and Arrick Mack broke out their tin-can rattles and showcased the songs during the competition for the 0-13 age group.

Out of honor and respect for the Community’s veterans, the powwow committee required all singers, including drum groups, to wear collared shirts and jeans, and dancers to wear traditional attire. “We are here for the veterans—it wasn’t easy finding a Northern drum group that would understand what we are trying to do and meet the specific criteria. But we were honored to have War Horse be our Northern drum group, and they sounded good,” explained Reina.

In some cases, the word “social” appears in the title of a powwow for a specific reason. Today, Native people from all over North America travel to compete in powwows in hopes of winning some of the significant prize money that is awarded for the various dances and drum events.

Reina noted, “Because the modern-day powwow revolves around the prize money, powwow committees like our own feel the true meaning of powwow has been compromised by money, and it is important to re-establish the old way of powwow, where Natives come together to network, sing, dance, eat and honor.

Placing the word ‘social’ [in the title] informs dancers, drum groups and vendors that the gathering will not be awarding large amounts of money, and often times this results in a small [number] of dancers [competing]. That’s not to say the modern way is the wrong way, or that there were no prizes at the Veterans Recognition Powwow, but the overall intention again is to dance, pray and honor our veterans.”

One veteran who attended the powwow was 80-year-old man, name unknown, from Michigan, who served in World War II. “It is not often one gets to meet someone from that era, and so it was important for the committee to make a small adjustment in the schedule and honor the man. That is just a small snapshot of what we are trying to achieve,” said Reina. The elder veteran and his wife were deeply touched by the recognition, and he shared a surprising fact: This was the first time he was honored for his service.

“Overall, it was big success. We are more than pleased with the turnout,” Reina said. “As far as I can remember, it was the largest turnout for a singing competition. I am still getting compliments about Friday night’s competition, and the powwow itself. This powwow has the potential to be a very big powwow. The interest is there and we know the opportunity is there, but we are discussing how far we want to take it from its original intent. It’s a balancing act, and right now we need to keep that intent (honoring veterans) in mind.”

The Veterans Social Powwow is a traditional Southern-style event. If you or someone you know wishes to learn, come out and participate volunteer or join the Powwow Committee, email Edward “Pacer” Reina at

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