LIANE HANSEN, host:
The troubled economy is also having an effect on cultural traditions. For decades, Native Americans have held powwows. Some are small local gatherings, but others have grown into large celebrations that attract people from many tribes. Every year, families look forward to long drives together, or save up for cross-country flights. As NPR's Charla Bear reports, it's been a struggle to maintain this lifestyle.
CHARLA BEAR: Tyler Richardson has a lot of energy. Like other nine-year-old boys, he enjoys playing football and baseball. But this weekend he's not running around in a tank top and shorts throwing a ball. He's dancing at a powwow. As he bobs and shakes, his black and orange fringe swings wildly. His feathered headdress even starts to come loose.
Mr. TYLER RICHARDSON (Native American, Haliwa-Saponi Tribe): I just can't stop because it's so fun, and it's my culture.
BEAR: Tyler is Haliwa-Saponi, a Native American tribe from North Carolina. His family drove to Baltimore's annual powwow to sing and dance in competitions. These performances are the main attraction at many powwows. Tyler says he doesn't dance for attention. He does it to honor tradition and family.
Mr. TYLER RICHARDSON: My grandma, she was gone for a very long time. And I had to go to a powwow that she couldn't go to. And then I danced in a competition, and I thought of her. I danced really good.
BEAR: Tyler dances while his dad Jesse sings in a drum group. Jesse holds his younger son in his lap. He helps the toddler grip a drumstick and pound out the rhythm. Eyes closed, they belt out a traditional song.
(Soundbite of traditional Haliwa-Saponi song)
BEAR: The drum is the heartbeat of the powwow. It's a call of pride that reminds Native Americans to stay strong. Jesse Richardson believes it's also vital to share native culture with people outside the tribe.
Mr. JESSE RICHARDSON (Native American, Haliwa-Saponi Tribe): My people need me to go out and be heard and seen. I was always raised by my parents. And my dad, he's always been hardcore. Keep up with your people, be with your people, and keep the race alive.
BEAR: Richardson used to take his family to more than a dozen powwows a year. But this year he's had to sacrifice culture to pay bills.
Mr. JESSE RICHARDSON: We've stayed at home more now than we've ever done before because of gas and hotels. Or if we decided to go, we were in the hole for a little while because of it. But we can't stay away. It's kind of hard, you know, to stay away from powwows because this is what we do. This is what we're about.
BEAR: The economy hasn't only been rough on dancers and singers at powwows. People make a living by selling crafts to spectators. Yellow Two Horse drives his jewelry and art to about 30 powwows a year. He used to make a decent living. Not this year.
Mr. YELLOW TWO HORSE (Native American, Haliwa-Saponi Tribe): Because I went to a couple where after my expenses, travel, rent, pay my health, cost of goods, eat, I lost money.
BEAR: Yellow Two Horse says his business is off 30 to 50 percent, so sometimes he goes to street fairs and flea markets instead. Powwow participation is down across the country, save for a few large events. People say they can't afford to go unless they win competitions.
Unidentified Man: And folks, your champions this year at our 34th annual event for the drum competition...
BEAR: Tyler Richardson is hot and tired after a long day of dancing. He's traded his feathers for a cool white tank top. But he's not ready to leave. He listens eagerly as the MC announces the winners.
Unidentified Man: Now, go to the male category, junior men's traditional. In third place, Tyler Richardson.
BEAR: Tyler wins $150. He gets to keep it, but his parents put their winnings towards expenses. They took home about $700. Jesse Richardson says he can't count on winning every time, but it's worth the risk to see his sons dance.
Mr. JESSE RICHARDSON: These boys, they look good out there, and they always get compliments. Everybody is just, hey, them boys right there, they're going to be bad when they get older! You know, they're going to be tough to beat, you know, in a contest. It gets really positive, you know, for them. And I'd like to keep it that way.
BEAR: That'll be difficult. Powwows are among the few places for families like the Richardsons to dance and sing. They need these events. But as the economy struggles, Native Americans worry about the future of this tradition. Charla Bear, NPR News.