'The Nations' Gather For Annual Pow Wow

The Gathering of Nations, the country's largest Native American Pow Wow, is under way in Albuquerque, N.M. Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, and the Pow Wow's principal announcers Beulah Sunrise-Rau and Vince Beyl explain their role in the celebration and why the event is so important in Indian Country.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, will the Barbershop guys go green or not? But first, it's that time of year when many professional and cultural groups get together for annual conferences, but they probably don't sound like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (singing) (unintelligible)

Unidentified Group: (singing) (unintelligible)

MARTIN: That's just one of the groups performing at the Gathering of Nations, the country's largest Native American Pow Wow. Every year, thousands come together at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico for a weekend packed with music, dance, exhibitions, a celebration of all things Native American. Joining me now - they were kind enough to break away from the gathering to visit with us - are Kevin Gover. He's the director of the National Museum of the American Indian right here in Washington, D.C. He is Pawnee and Comanche.

Vince Beyl is an educator in Bemidji, Minnesota. He's also of one Indian country's most highly sought after Pow Wow announcers. He'll be announcing this year at the gathering. He is an Ojibwe. And Buela Sunrise-Rao is an announcer at one of the most popular events at the gathering, the Miss Indian World pageant. She's also the host and co-producer of the Gathering of Nations Web cast. She is - Buela, help me with the pronunciation.

Ms. BUELA SUNRISE-RAO (Host, Gathering of Nations Web Cast; Announcer, Miss Indian World Pageant): Dine.

MARTIN: Dine, which is, in fact, the proper name of many know for Navajo. She's also a Santo Domingo Pueblo. Welcome, all of you. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Thank you.

Mr. VINCE BEYL (Pow Wow Announcer, Gathering of Nations): Thank you.

Mr. KEVIN GOVER (Director, National Museum of the American Indian): Thank you.

MARTIN: Kevin, what's a Pow Wow, and where did the term come from?

Mr. GOVER: Well, a Pow Wow's a dance, usually a number of dancers, a number of drums. But it can be, you know, just one drum and three or four people dancing. And that's a Pow Wow.

MARTIN: Why has this gathering become such an important event in Indian country? I understand that this year marks the 26th anniversary. Why is this gathering important?

Mr. GOVER: Well, it's become the biggest Pow Wow in the country. I lived in Albuquerque in 1983 when the first gathering took place, and I remember just being, you know, a little average sized Pow Wow, and it was nice. But what it's become is sort of the kick off for the Pow Wow season and people wait, you know, all winter to get out there and dance and sing again. And so Albuquerque's become the gathering place for the Indians.

MARTIN: For people who have never been to one, what will they expect to see?

Mr. GOVER: Lots of Indians, first of all, but the thing to see at the gathering is the grand entry when the dancers make their first appearance at the Pow Wow. And it is - it's just an incredible sight to behold.

MARTIN: There are competitions, right?

Mr. GOVER: Yes.

MARTIN: Dance competitions and singing competitions?

Mr. GOVER: Yes, all of the above.

MARTIN: Vince, by day, as I mentioned, you're an educator, but you also travel around the country as an announcer at Pow Wows. You're one of the top announcers at the gathering. For those not familiar, what's your role?

Mr. BEYL: Well, as Pow Wow announcer I share the microphone with three other colleagues there. And basically like, Kevin alluded to earlier about grand entry, bringing in all the dancers, there's over 3,000 dancers, probably representing about a 180-something tribal nations throughout the province of Canada and all across North America. And it's quiet a spectacle to see.

MARTIN: But you clearly have the pipes. I mean, I could listen to you read the phone book. But how did it - how did you…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: (unintelligible). But how did you become an announcer, and what does it take to be a great announcer?

Mr. BEYL: I guess, my whole life, I spent a lifetime in an arena singing and dancing. I'm the original member of former Red Earth Singers out of Tama, Iowa. And back home on our reservation, there was a head start Pow Wow where I went over with Royce Kingbird and the Kingbird Singers, and the announcer they have scheduled didn't make it. Something took place. And so the committee and people asked me if I would help out with announcing. And I was reluctant at first, and - but being there to do anything we can to help people, I did. I did the announcing for that little Pow Wow, and then after I did that, other people started asking me to do it.

So it came to me from that way, and I guess it's going to be unique opportunity. What a way to give back something special in that circle, whether as a dancer and singer, and now as an announcer.

MARTIN: Wow. Buela, how about you? How did you became an announcer?

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Oh, gosh. I don't really…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: It was kind of funny. I was in pageants. I started out, like, in the little princess pageants to begin with, and I was the first Navajo Nation Fair Pow Wow princess. And I was 14 years old.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: And I was scared to death because I was not ready to wear a dress without shorts underneath, to be honest. And so, it was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: …it was pretty scary. And it really did work because the more pageants I was in, the more people asked me to announce different things in fashion shows and things like that. And then I ended up by taking a radio class and ended up on radio. That's what I've been doing ever since.

MARTIN: Well, you have lovely voice, also.

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Thank you. But I still think it doesn't compete with Vince's. But…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Vince, how would you describe your style as an announcer, and what does it take to be good other than having the equipment?

Mr. BEYL: Well, I guess a voice that's clear and good always helps. And then also to bring your background experience. You know, when you travel to many Indian nations, they all have different traditions and customs. I've never imposed my ways as an Ojibwe, as an (unintelligible) person. But my style is basically just giving the respect to the people there and keeping things going in a very good flowing motion and you're acknowledging every one of those dancers by category and so forth as they come in so that people can understand and see that, and you're praising them. And it just if all takes place in…

MARTIN: Come on, you're teasing us. Give us a little taste. Come on now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEYL: Well…

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Give us a little something. Everybody can't go…

Mr. BEYL: Ladies and gentleman, before we practice this song, we are going to dance in the honor member of your ancestors and forefathers that left this beautiful gift of song and dance. We dance in their honor and memory because they have paid their dues, that we are here today to express ourselves freely through this dance style with a various wares that we have here with us. And we never forget those ancestors that give us these great songs that we still sing today and we carry on in the most prideful manner.

MARTIN: All right, Vince, it's all right. Woo-hoo!

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Yay.

(Soundbite of applause, laughter)

MARTIN: Buela, it's on.

Mr. GOVER: And you know, Michel, one thing Vince hasn't mentioned, too, is that…

MARTIN: Go ahead, Kevin.

Mr. GOVER: …the great Pow Wow announcers have endless supply of one liners, and they're very funny.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

Mr. GOVER: There's certain style of humor. I think it's something like they have good taste in bad jokes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOVER: And they can really deliver them, and the whole place will be laughing at various times.

MARTIN: Well, let me just jump in for just a minute to say if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the Gathering of Nations, the largest Pow Wow in North America. It's going on now in Albuquerque, New Mexico. And I'm speaking with Pow Wow announcers Vince Beyl and Buela Sunrise-Rao, and also Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Buela, come on, now. You've got to give us something. Tell us little bit about the Miss Indian World pageant. As I understand it, it's become one of the highlights of the gathering.

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Yes, it has. Actually, really, as years have gone by, there has been Pow Wow princess, it started out more or less, and then developed into Miss Indian World. And now we invite all indigenous young ladies between ages of 18 and 25, I believe, to participate in the pageant. You can't be married, you know, no dependents, anything like that. But it's a good growing experience for all of these girls to get together, young ladies, so that they can learn about the similarities that we as a culture have, and then also really respect and celebrate their differences.

MARTIN: What are some of the cultural aspects of this kind of a pageant that you would not have in Miss America, for example?

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Oh, that's a very good question, because it is a pageant more of the beauty of the girl inside, more so than what's on the outside. And she does have to know about her culture because we do have a category for traditional talent presentations. And it is a plus to know your language.

MARTIN: Buela, I wanted to ask: There are lot of people who question the value of pageants, period, for - regardless of ethnic group. Does anyone feel this way about Miss Indian World, and what do you say to that?

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Well, I don't know of anybody who's really complained against it, but I can honestly say that it's not so much of an exploitation situation as much as it is a celebration of sisterhood. And the experience is more, I guess, primary in the pageant than it is, you know, going and competing against each other. So we stress that from the very beginning so that they can, you know, network, make friends, learn more about their cultures and share that within each other. So, it makes a more well-rounded person, I think.

MARTIN: Kevin, what is it meant to be - this is not your first gathering, of course. You've been coming many, many years. What does it mean to be there, and how has the recession affected, do you think, the ability of people to go?

Mr. GOVER: Well, it's hard to say what the impact of the recession will be, although they're not having any trouble selling tickets and you can already sense there are a lot of people in town. So I suspect that it'll have maybe some impact, but it won't be great, just because this is such an important event every year. You know, it's just one of those things. It's a place to get together. You see lots of people that you haven't seen in a while, and you get to meet lots of new people. And so it's just a huge, really social, cultural event that every Indian tries to get to…

MARTIN: At some point.

Mr. GOVER: If not every year, at least at some point, yes.

MARTIN: How do you feel about non-Indians coming?

Mr. GOVER: Oh, we welcome non-Indians to the gathering. You know, there's nothing exclusionary about a pow-wow.

MARTIN: What's the most important thing to know in attending your first pow-wow?

Mr. GOVER: Do what the announcer says.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOVER: You know, when in Rome, you know what I mean? So, just do - when you see other people standing up, you know it's time to stand up. When you see people being quiet, it's time to be quiet, and just have good manners, is all.

MARTIN: And how about not touching people's regalia without their permission?

Mr. GOVER: Oh never, never touch a dancer or his or her regalia without permission or shoot their photograph. You know, you should always be respectful and ask if you may do that. And they're very friendly and very accommodating.

MARTIN: Vince, final thought from you. What do you hope people will draw from coming to the gathering?

Mr. BEYL: Well, we hope that they experience something very unique, like Kevin was talking about. And when we talk about inter-tribal dance, we mean inter-tribal. We mean everybody, all nations to come down to that dance floor and experience that beautiful song being sung by that drum group. And for people in attendance, whether it be native, non-native or anybody for maybe their first time ever attending a pow-wow celebration, you want them to leave with good feelings.

And they're always amazed about the various dance styles, the beautiful dresses that the women wear, the dance regalia and so forth. Not only the actual activity within the pit but outside, you have all the - you have the top American Indian arts and crafts set up under the Pow-Wow Alley out there, the food, the Indian food.

They're getting a taste of everything from the traditional to the contemporary, in conjunction with the pow-wow, which is there. So the people in attendance, I think they leave with a great experience. Even myself as being native, the first time here to be in that pit with that many American Indians is just - it blows me away.

MARTIN: Buela, what's a final thought from you?

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Well, I think that anybody who loves any type of cultural event should really take part and just show up and absorb it on your own. Because seeing all those people together dancing to one song puts a lump in your throat and tears in your eyes out of happiness and respect. And really thinking, you know, all these people are together moving to one beat, and it's so important. And they're all doing, I guess, out of just wanting to take part, whether it's a musical group, whether it's a dancer or a singer. So it's a great event to be at.

MARTIN: Buela Sunrise-Rao and Vince Beyl are participating in the Gathering of Nations. We were also joined by Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian. They were all kind enough to join us from Albuquerque. I guess you're going to get back to the pow-wow. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. GOVER: Thank you.

Mr. BEYL: You're welcome.

Ms. SUNRISE-RAO: Thank you.

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