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Annual powwow celebrates native culture

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    Darrel Iness of the Yakama Nation serves as co-emcee of the Hilo Inter-Tribal PowWow, held annually at Wailoa River State Park on Hawaii island.
    As kahuna pule of the event, Kimo Pihana oversees prayers and ceremonies to cleanse and bless the powwow site.

When Liz De Roche was looking for a venue to hold the inaugural Hilo Inter-Tribal PowWow in 2006, Wailoa River State Park called to her.

"As I was walking barefoot across the grass, it was as though the land was insisting that the powwow be held there," De Roche said. "The feeling was so intense that it brought tears to my eyes."

She and her husband, Troy, were able to reserve the serene, verdant location, and when word about the event spread, De Roche received a call from a young woman. "She said her aunt had told her of a time when people of different skin colors in Hawaii — red, white, yellow and brown — would come together in one place," De Roche recalled. "She said, ‘Maybe your powwow is what she was talking about.’"


» Place: Wailoa River State Park

» Dates: May 28-30

» Time: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 28 and 29, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. May 30

» Admission: Free. Native American food and crafts available for sale. Bring chairs or blankets for seating.

» Phone: 557-8607

» Email:

» Website:

» Accommodations: The Naniloa Volcanoes Resort has special rates for those attending the event, starting at $65 per night, double occupancy. Add $20 per night for a daily buffet breakfast. The deal is valid from May 24 to June 3. Visit or call 969-3333. Use the code ITPW for room only or ITPP for room and breakfast.

Related events

» Films: "Finding Their Own Dance: Reawakening of the Alaskan Alutiiq Arts" and "Reel Injuns: On the Trail of the Hollywood Indian" will be shown at the Palace Theater on May 25. The showing, which includes a live performance by the Alutiiq Dancers from Kodiak Island in Alaska, begins at 7 p.m. Admission is $7, $6 for students and seniors, and $5 for members of the Friends of the Palace Theater.

» Workshop: On May 26, Montana resident Naomi Billedeaux-Meyers, the event’s head female dancer, will lead a free workshop, RezMoves, from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort’s Palm Room. RezMoves is low-impact aerobics based on powwow dancing.


Soon after, the couple learned that Wailoa had been a gathering place for the Hawaiians in olden days. "The mana (spirit) in the park is strong," De Roche said.

"Each year that we’ve held the powwow, there has been evidence of that: Estranged families make amends, long-parted friends reunite, new friendships are formed."

The De Roches founded the nonprofit Federation of American Natives in 2005 to, according to its mission statement, "promote, preserve and celebrate indigenous culture through programs that will strengthen social capital and enrich cultural and economic self-sufficiency." The Hilo Inter-Tribal PowWow is the organization’s major annual event.

Troy is an active member of the Blackfeet Nation and an internationally renowned Native American flautist who grew up surrounded by his culture in Heart Butte, Mont. De Roche is Métis, of mixed Native American and French-Canadian descent. She grew up in Seattle, in a family that worked hard to maintain traditional values in an urban environment. Preserving tradition is an important part of the De Roches’ lives.

They envisioned holding a powwow that was as close to an old-time powwow as possible, so that Native Americans living in Hawaii could celebrate their culture and share it with others. "According to the 2006 census, there are 26,000 Native Americans living in the Islands," De Roche said. "That’s the 16th-largest population of Native Americans in the United States. The Hilo Inter-Tribal PowWow honors Native American culture as a part of the diverse multiethnic community of Hawaii and serves to develop a sense of community with all who share a similar belief in maintaining traditional and indigenous culture."

Hawaiian oli (chants) and pule (prayers) will be part of the opening ceremony. Leo Nahenahe o Pohai ke Aloha, a Hilo hula halau, will perform Sunday.

At the Children’s Lodge, keiki can enjoy games, storytelling, face painting and make-and-take crafts. Fry bread is among the Native American foods that will be available for purchase. Artisans will sell their fine beadwork, pottery, flutes, drums, leatherwork, paintings, silver jewelry and more.

And, of course, the dances will be a big draw. Native American groups from all over the U.S. and Canada will demonstrate their unique dance styles, and anyone who is dressed respectfully (no bare chests for men and no bare midriffs, low-cut tops or short shorts for women) can join in the "inter-tribal" dances.

"The contemporary powwow links Native Americans to the past and helps us reinforce our heritage," De Roche said. "It’s a time for us to reflect on and celebrate our traditions. We welcome everyone to experience our culture at our powwow. In this way we will not only strengthen our circle, we will widen it."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features have won multiple awards from the Society of American Travel Writers.


"Powwow" is derived from the Algonquin "pau wau," meaning medicine men and spiritual leaders. Early European settlers in North America mistakenly thought "pau wau" referred to festive events that they saw. Over the years, as Indian tribes learned English, powwow became an acceptable term for these celebrations, which renew cultural traditions through singing, dancing and the wearing of colorful regalia.

The focal point of the powwow is the dance arena, which is considered sacred ground akin to a church. The arena director ensures proper protocol is followed here at all times. Chosen for their skill and knowledge, the two head dancers (one man and one woman) serve as models for the rest of the dancers during the powwow.

Some dances are notable for their jumps, spins and intricate footwork, which require great stamina and agility. Elaborate regalia includes leggings decorated with ribbons; beaded belts, barrettes, armbands and moccasins; anklets made with strands of bright yarn; and headdresses trimmed with eagle feathers and colored horsehair.

The long fringe on the sleeves and hem of women’s buckskin dresses represents a waterfall — continuously flowing, giving life. Shells, coins and elk teeth are among the adornments on dresses made of cloth (usually cotton, taffeta and velvet).


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