With powwow preparations, families keep alive traditions born in the Lower 48

The week before the Eklutna Powwow, Stacy Nicholi bought moose hide. She pulled out boxes of beads. She found her fabric shears. Then after work that day, her daughter Katrina Deacon, 19, drove over to the house and the two began working on the crown.

It was intended to say "Miss Ida'ina Tiny Tot Princess 2016-2017," each letter meticulously spelled out with one tiny bead at a time, and it was intended for Sierra Balluta, 8, to wear.

Sierra's mother, Nicholi, is Athabascan on her father's side. Her mother's family is Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan, from North Dakota. Growing up in California, she would go to powwows nearly every weekend, dancing the Fancy Dance. It was her way of staying connected with heritage from her mother's side.

Today, Nicholi makes it a priority that her daughters grow up knowing where they come from.

"My mom told me Athabascan, Mandan and Hidatsa," Katrina said (the family learned about their Arikara heritage more recently). "I used to use my fingers to remember all three of my tribes and repeated the tribes back to my mom."

Sierra and Katrina have grown up attending as many powwows as they can around Anchorage. They often perform the jingle dress dance, in which dancers wear traditional regalia covered in little bells that jingle when they bounce and step.

But while this state has many Alaska Native cultural gatherings, from Celebration in Juneau to Cama-i in Bethel, the Lower 48-style powwows are rare. Powwows arrived in Alaska when Native Americans from "the States" moved up. At the same time, Alaskans — Native and non-Native — were attending powwows in other states and wanted to experience the drumming, dancing and camaraderie here.


In California, Nicholi was involved in what she calls the "powwow circuit." Those events often involve big drums, fancy dancing and costumes based on the traditional dress of tribes from the Great Plains, eastern woodlands and the South. They often have a rodeo-like component with competitions and prize money.

The powwows in Alaska tend to involve a potlatch, dancing and mingling with members of other tribes — a more "traditional" style, Nicholi said.

The Eklutna Powwow on June 18-19 incorporated Alaska Native dance styles along with the dances and drumming of First Nations outside Alaska.
Earlier this year, 8-year-old Sierra was named the Tebughna Foundation Ida'ina Friendship Gathering princess, the first in her family. She'll hold the title for a year, and the tradition is that princesses attend every powwow with a crown representing the powwow they were honored at.

Most powwows have a crown to bestow upon the new princess. This year the Ida'ina Gathering had four princesses, so Sierra's mom and big sister took on the project of making a crown for her to wear.

Though Nicholi and Katrina dedicated hours to the task of completing the crown for Sierra, on the day of the Eklutna Powwow it sat unfinished in a grocery bag. The demands of their daily to-do lists constantly compete with the desire to hold onto their heritage, Nicholi observed.

"It's what they call living in two worlds," said Deacon. "Trying to keep your traditions going and living your everyday life."

Still, the family attended the intertribal powwow. They danced, ate food and mingled with friends.

"You gotta keep up with tradition for the kiddos," Nicholi said. "Something to hold onto when they're older."