Keith Colston, of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, talks about pow wows and other aspects of Native American life.
E. Keith Colston, administrative director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA), has served as the master of ceremonies for pow-wows around the United States and Canada for more than 27 years.
His resume includes multiple stints with the Howard County Pow-Wow, which returns for a 26th year to the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship, Maryland between July 20 and 21. Colston, who is Tuscarora and an enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, traces the word back to “pau-wau,” an Algonquin languages-based term signifying an important speaker in gatherings.
This gathering traditionally brings Native Americans from the Haliwa-Saponi, Piscataway, Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Cherokee, Sioux and other tribes — as well as members of the public — together to celebrate and learn from one another’s cultures. Its endurance also reflects Native Americans’ significant role in Maryland.
According to U.S. Census Bureau data, Native Americans (identified by the government as “American Indians and Alaska Natives alone”) constitute 0.6 percent of Maryland’s population, as well as 0.5 of Baltimore city’s.
“We have about 86,000 American Indians in the state that identify as Native American or ‘other,’” Colston said. “We have tribal communities throughout the state, stretching from the western part of Maryland to the Eastern Shore. There are about nine different tribal communities that are either represented by tribes or tribal organizations.”
This includes the Piscataway people, who originate specifically within contemporary Maryland’s boundaries and are grouped within two state-recognized entities: the Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe. The Accohannock tribe of the Eastern shore earned state recognition last year.
Colston’s own family arrived in Baltimore during the mid-20th century for a mix of industrial labor opportunities and military service during World War II. Their migration mirrored that of many Lumbee peoples, who moved from the Carolinas and settled primarily in Fells Point. Their and other tribes’ legacy remain preserved in the Baltimore American Indian Center (BAIC) on Broadway, which hosts its own, very different pow-wow every fall.
Barry Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe who led the BAIC during the ’80s and early ’90s , now operates Pow-Wow, inc., the company that organizes the Howard County Pow-Wow. He said that each pow-wow serves a different purpose and involves different ceremonies and levels of openness, depending on who’s organizing it. While some pow-wows feature spiritual components that honor ancestors and aren’t open to everybody, he described the Howard County one as a good general educational opportunity for non-Native Americans.
“We don’t get that deep into specific tribes [or their ceremonies]," he said, his voice thick with a North Carolina drawl. “What we try to do is whet the appetite of the public, the people that come out, to go away from this really interested and do research, reach out to other tribes, and be interested in who we are.”
The grounds feature staples of Indigenous cuisine like fry bread and buffalo stew, as well more familiar festival foods like hot dogs and hamburgers. Vendors will sell hand-made Native American crafts and wares, from dreamcatchers to beadwork and beyond. The programming includes various kinds of dances, including the fancy dance for which Colston once won championships.
“The dances that we have - men’s fancy, and the other styles of what our men do, as equally, what our women do - the judges are always looking for the basics,” he said. “They’re looking for people to stay with the beat of the drum, on time with the drum, so that when you hear the drum beat, you can see the dancers’ feet touching Mother Earth, or whatever ground they’re dancing on...The next thing they’re looking for dancers to to dance their particular style, meaning that, [for instance], men’s fancy is about spins and turns and things that make people go ‘aaah!’"
If it sounds confusing, don’t worry, because the MC’s responsibilities involve explaining these to people in tandem with the performances. Sharon Berrun, another Haliwa-Saponi tribe member who will MC this year’s pow-wow, said that MC’s major role is to teach.
“There are, not just with Native people but all people, so many stereotypes out here that people seem to have embedded in their minds,” she said. “It does us no good, as a people, to have others come and watch our ceremony if they leave not knowing any more than what they came with."
She added that this event allows people from different tribes to meet and connect through shared rituals.
“From our standpoint, where pow-wows are concerned, it’s like a big family reunion, a gathering to unite with other tribes,” she said. Like Richardson and Colston, she encouraged potential attendees to come with an open mind: “Always ask questions, we’re very open to answering as much as possible.”
5 things worth checking out at the Howard County Pow-Wow
1. Make sure to witness the Parade of Nations, in which members of different tribes carry their respective flags and the U.S. one in procession, at noon on both days.
2. Visit individual merchant stands to buy a dreamcatcher, beadwork or other Indigenous crafts from certified artisans.
3. Music lovers must make sure to listen when Ray Silva of the Pueblo peoples performs traditional flute at 2:10 p.m. each day.
4. The dance performances and competitions take place at various intervals, including at noon (within the parade), 1:35, 2:20 and 4:15 every day.
5. If all that whets your appetite, then be sure to try Indigenous specialties like the Indian tacos, which replace tortillas with fry bread