Celebration reminds Utahns of the state’s Indigenous roots during Pioneer Day weekend
Stephan Brown and Nakoa Kakakaway, both of McDermott, Nevada, dance during the 28th Annual Intertribal Pow Wow at Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Saturday. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)
Estimated reading time: 3-4 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Most Utahans celebrate the arrival of Mormon pioneer settlers to the state this weekend, but a celebration of much deeper Utah history took place Saturday in Liberty Park.
Native American Celebration in the Park emphasizes that the Native people of Utah are still here sharing Native American culture through music and dance. Utah, named after the Ute tribe, is also home to the Diné (Navajo), Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone tribes.
“In my opinion, Pioneer Day basically celebrates Utah history — and as Native Americans, we are Utah history,” said 17-year-old dancer Kaden Denny. “So it’s important for us to keep our culture alive and to be able to do that.”
The powwow and festival featured dozens of dancers of all ages dressed in traditional pageantry accompanied by two orchestras as well as a number of vendors.
For Denny, his sister Jace Denny, 15, and his cousins Naomi Smith, 14, and Bobbi Smith, 14, the event is a way to honor the memory of their grandfather, who died in 2016 and whose birthday would have been Saturday. The four teenagers have danced all their lives and said the powwow circle, where the dances take place, is a source of healing power and represents the circle of life.
“This was the last place we saw our grandfather before he passed, so we celebrate it here,” Kaden Denny said. “We know he’s here and he loves to see us dance. That’s how we express our love to him.”
Dancer Harvey Spoonhunter, 67, came from the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming for the event after hearing about it from another attendee. He traveled from California to Connecticut for powwows, but this was his first year at Celebration in the Park.
“Ever since I was able to walk, I’ve been dancing. It’s been in our family and our badges have been passed down from generation to generation. It has a lot of significance and family ties,” Spoonhunter said. .
“We had chiefs and ceremonial leaders before. Right now it’s my responsibility to continue the traditional measures so that the next generation can have what we have.”
Regalia, the clothing and adornments that Native Americans wear at powwows or social dances are unique to the individual. Spoonhunter’s badges, for example, feature bald eagles. “He’s a messenger,” Spoonhunter said. “He carries our prayers to the Creator.”
Native American Celebration in the Park is not a new event; in fact, it has been going on for 28 years. Founder and organizer Cal Nez told audience members he started the event as a way to keep Native American voices and tradition alive.
“It will never be ‘white man versus Indian.’ It’s about unity and sharing cultures. It’s about people coming together,” Nez said.
This year marks a sort of passing of the baton for Nez. He has started handing over responsibility for the event to his children, who will run the event themselves starting in 2023. Courtney Nez, Cal Nez’s daughter, said the event was hard work.
“It’s mostly family or volunteers who help make this work,” she said. “Growing up, watching him do that, it’s like July 24th, you always know you’re going to be busy.”
She added that attendance is still down from the pandemic as many Native American communities have been hit hard by COVID-19. However, she hopes the event will grow in the future and that with additional volunteers and fundraising, the $5 entry fee used to cover event expenses can be waived. .
“As Native Americans, obviously COVID has affected us a lot more and it’s taken a lot of our elders,” she said. “But hopefully we will grow more.”