Zak Hoops is a young powwow dancer who lives on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana. Courtesy photo

'We're building faith': Social Distance Powwow brings Indian Country together despite coronavirus

Being all of 6 years old, Zak Hoops just couldn’t understand why the college powwows he typically attends and where he performs the grass dance were being canceled.

His mother, Toma Campbell, tried to explain to him what the coronavirus is and why it was important to cancel those events. But she told him about another opportunity for him to share his talents with others.

She had recently discovered a Facebook page called the Social Distance Powwow where people were sharing photos and videos of themselves dancing in their regalia. Zak jumped at the opportunity.

He donned his grass dance regalia, and his mother recorded him performing a ground blessing on the frozen, snow-covered ground of their home in Fort Belknap, Montana. As of Sunday evening, the video Campbell posted of her son on the Facebook page had 31,000 shares and 19,000 likes.

“I never, ever expected anything to that magnitude,” Campbell said. "It’s just nice to know that Zak brought a lot of joy to people all over the world.”

Started on March 17, the Social Distance Powwow page had more than 106,000 members as of Sunday night.

Thousands of people have posted photos and videos of themselves and loved ones wearing Native American regalia, dancing and singing with drums. Children can be seen in regalia dancing in their backyards and in their homes, and adults wearing no regalia can be seen dancing in their offices. One man shared a video of himself performing the hoop dance on a basketball court on Arizona’s Gila River Indian Reservation.

The first powwow was held the weekend of March 21-22, and the second was held this past weekend. This weekend’s powwow focused on Native storytelling.

One young man shared a story about a young Native man who went on his first war party but was killed by an enemy tribe. His parents cut off their hair and fingers, and one night his father dreamed of his son, who took him to the spirit world.

He found that his son hadn’t been allowed to pass into the spirit world because his family was grieving for him too much. So when his father woke up, he told his wife it was time to let their son’s spirit go.

“For everybody who’s losing their loved ones to the coronavirus or to natural causes, I really hope this video may comfort you,” the young man who posted the video said. “We know as Indian people, we know this as the circle of life.”

Dan Simonds (Mashantucket Pequot) created the Social Distance Powwow group on Facebook and is one of the administrators. Photo by Zane Simonds (Crow and Mashantucket Pequot, age 10)

Some posts on the page have earned thousands of “likes” and re-shares, and some have even earned their subjects fame beyond Facebook. Zak Hoops’ performance even drew the attention of a Montana television station, which ran a story about the boy’s video during the sports segment of its March 24 nightly broadcast.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a powwow dancer get highlighted on the evening sports,” said Whitney Rencountre, a Crow Creek Sioux tribal citizen and one of the three administrators for the Social Distance Powwow page.

He said the pandemic’s impact on competitive sports has opened up opportunities for other athletic practices to be recognized by the media.

“We don’t ever think of powwow dancing as a sport, but powwow dancers have to stay in shape, too,” he said.

Dan Simonds, a citizen of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, created the Social Distance Powoww page after seeing the pain that news of the coronavirus pandemic was causing in Indian Country.

Simonds began limiting his exposure to news about the coronavirus, as well as to social media. But he decided people needed something positive to lift their spirits.

“This idea just came in my head, and it’s not my idea,” he said. “Anything that you see in life in the world is through Creator. I was just given this idea, and that’s how it took off.”

In addition to being a forum for Native singers and dancers, the Social Distance Powwow page has also become a place for people to show their support for a variety of causes, such as the fight to stop the coronavirus outbreak and efforts to combat the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women.

A young Navajo nurse posted a photo of her and a colleague wearing surgical masks with cartoon images on them, writing “This is the only outfit I’ll be wearing until we eventually run out of it.” An artist shared a painting showing a Native grandmother watching over a young nurse crouching on the ground with her head in her hand.

And one video showed a young woman in regalia dancing and signing the words to a musical rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, a performance she dedicated to her great aunt who she said had recently died from the coronavirus.

Others have shared their poetry, and some have even begun sharing comedy sketches, such as a faux news report about the coronavirus and a man who pretended to share a sacred song that he said he shouldn’t be sharing that turned out to be an Eagles cover (sorry to ruin the punchline).

Videos and photos are being posted from people around the world, including from indigenous peoples in other parts of the world, such as the First Nations people of Canada and the Mayans of Central America.

Michelle Bennett, whose Mi’kmaq name is Mlki E’pit (Resilient Woman), lives in St. George’s, Newfoundland on Canada’s east coast.

Last week, she shared a video of herself performing a women’s traditional dance in a community center in St. George’s.

“I wanted to share my prayers with all of Turtle Island,” she said. “You can feel the vibrations in the air from it. It’s so healing.”

And many people have begun posting their arts and crafts for sale.

Simonds said he hopes the page will allow vendors, like himself, who earn money from selling arts, crafts and other souvenirs, to recoup some of the revenue they have lost because of canceled powwows and Native conferences.

Spring is typically the start of the powwow season, he said, a time when Native people are awakened from their winter slumber and gather to share their culture and crafts with one another.

“I am depressed because my career is based off powwows,” he said. “Vendors like myself, we’ve lost probably $10,000 to $30,000 to $40,000, all depending on what they sell.”

Yvette Leecy is a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Courtesy photo

Yvette Leecy, a 57-year-old citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs of Oregon, said she has been able to sell nearly 20 vests made from colorful Pendleton wool, a popular craft material for Native artisans, on the Social Distance Powwow page.

Leecy, who oversees timber sales for her tribe’s forest department, said the page allows people to connect through shared interests and beliefs and overcome the fear caused by a public health crisis.

“It’s a healthy connection,” she said. “Instead of building fear, we’re building faith.”

On Saturday evening, she and her two granddaughters performed a healing dance in her backyard around a fire, and Leecy shared a video of the dance on the Social Distance Powwow page.

“We’re going to do our social dance for healing, for our lands, for our people, for the sick, for the people that can’t dance,” Leecy said before starting the dance. “We hope that this helps everybody.”

Yvette Leecy shared a video of her family performing a healing dance at their home.

Rencountre, 40, said the page allows him to put his skills as a powwow emcee to work. He said the pandemic has cost him some work on the powwow circuit, including celebrations in Denver and at two South Dakota universities.

He said the page offers Native people and outlet for the talents they would otherwise be showcasing in college gymnasiums and sports arenas before thousands of spectators. But perhaps even more importantly, it’s a place where non-Native people can come to learn about the beauty of indigenous culture, he said.

“It’s a way to connect with people, and it’s a way for us to kind of pass time and maybe divert from the fear of this COVID-19,” he said. “This is a way to express ourselves while social distancing.”

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