For the audience, it's a show. But for the 100 or so Native Americans who will be performing inside a circle at this weekend's 36th annual Pow Wow, dancing is a spiritual experience, one connecting them to a culture as old as the land itself.
"It is something that touches the four areas of our being," says Keith Colston, administrator for the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs and veteran master of ceremonies for the Pow Wow. "Spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally — what goes on in the circle touches us."
Set for Saturday and Sunday at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium, the Pow Wow is a chance for the Baltimore area's Native American population — about 4,000 as of the last census, according to Pow Wow officials — to celebrate and show off their native culture. Yes, it has its serious and solemn side, says Beth Nance, an administrative assistant for the sponsoring Baltimore American Indian Center who has worked on the Pow Wow for about 14 years. So, visitors won't find the sort of party atmosphere that pervades many of the city's ethnic festivals. For example, there is no alcohol, no amusement rides and no outside music acts at the event. Each of the 25 or so craft vendors will be selling goods either handmade or produced by Native Americans.
"It's not like a real festival," she says.
But while it may not be a traditional festival, the Pow Wow is certainly festive. For some, she says, it's like a big family reunion, a time to re-establish ties that have been too-long ignored.
"Sometimes, there are people who only see each other at pow wows, and some people go to pow wows two or three times a month," she says. "There are different tribes that come from all over the East Coast."
Many Native Americans living here are members of the Lumbee tribe, who migrated to the area from North Carolina in the 1930s, looking for jobs in Baltimore warehouses and factories. Other tribes are also represented, including the Piscataway tribe that was native to Southern Maryland. Nance has connections to the Seminole, Lumbee and Cherokee tribes, while Colston has roots in both the Lumbee and Tuscarora.
"The Pow Wow helps to bring out more knowledge of the Native American peoples," Colston says, "whether through dancing, through our vendors or through coming to support the American Indian Center."
Traditional smoke dancers and hoop dancers, along with flute players, will concentrate on entertaining the crowd. And with dozens of Native Americans, many in colorful traditional costumes, dancing for both pride and some big-time prize money — about $15,000 will be awarded over the course of the weekend — the Pow Wow is clearly no church service.
Each day's competition begins with a grand entry, as the dancers parade in as a group. The circle in which the dancers will be performing is blessed, prayers are said, and then the competition begins. The dancers are strictly segregated — men dance with men, women with women. Separate competitions are staged for teens and young children.
Between 20 and 40 drummers, separated into four groups, will accompany the dancing.
The Pow Wow, however, is not strictly a spectator sport for non-Native Americans. Several times during both days, spectators will be invited into the circle to dance alongside the competitors, maybe pick up a few pointers.
"It's an opportunity for people to come and be a part of the demonstration," says Colston, who as master of ceremonies charges himself with both explaining what is going on to those not familiar with the culture and encouraging them to take part.
"They get to dance with us, side by side, and get an idea of what we do and what we feel like while we're listening to that drumbeat," he says. "I look on it as a time for unity among two groups of people."
If you go
The 36th annual Pow Wow is set for 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday at the Maryland State Fairgrounds, 2200 York Road in Timonium. Tickets are $5 a day. Information: 410-675-3535 or baic.org.