A powwow reaches deep into the past: Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio celebrates tradition

Published in Indian Country Today in August 2008.

Our Labor Day Weekend Powwow is a traditional one,” said Carol Welsh, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, executive director of the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio. “The original intention of the powwow was to express our culture and spirituality. But sometimes contest powwows have such a long list of categories to get through, they can’t fit in giveaways, honor dances, and other ceremonies. We take the time for them.”

Each year, the NIACCO autumn gathering generally draws around 150 participants and 5,000 attendees to the Franklin County Fairground, in Hilliard, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. You can count on a strong showing by Ohio’s Lakota/Dakota/Nakota community, according to Welsh, as well as by Shawnees, Delawares, and others who have long called the area home. This year’s dates are September 5–7, and the emcee is Jerry Dearly, a noted Oglala Lakota educator and speaker. The gates open at 10 each morning, with a Grand Entry each day at 1 pm, and an additional Grand Entry at 7 pm on September 5 and 6. Camping is available on the grounds.

The inclusive, expansive heritage Welsh describes is not just that of Ohio’s many Native cultures, or even the traditional powwows at Lake Andes, South Dakota, on her Dakota mother’s Yankton reservation. It also encompasses an ancient people who inhabited America’s heartland some 2,000 years ago. Legendary astronomers, mathematicians, architects, and artisans, they left their mark on what is now Ohio in the shape of massive earthen-walled enclosures, as well as artificial hills, called mounds. Enormous circles, squares, octagons — covering as many as hundreds of acres — encode the movements of the sun and moon. The remains of ceremonial passageways, outlying shrines and habitations cover even more acreage. Hundreds of earthworks complexes are known to exist today; once there may have been thousands.

 “The powwow will honor this rich heritage, reviving it for Native people and correcting stereotypes non-Native people may have,” said Welsh. “We’re building bridges between ancient history and today’s Indians.” For the Labor Day event, she’s arranging earthworks-themed videos and crafts workshops, as well as instruction in the use of the atlatl (an ancient spear-throwing device).

These activities are similar to those she and her husband, Mark Welsh, Ihanktonwan Dakota and NAICCO program director, provide at a NAICCO satellite office they have just established at the Great Circle, an earthworks in nearby Newark, Ohio. At the massive enclosure, where several football games could take place simultaneously, the Welshes are part of a team put together Ohio State University’s Newark Earthworks Center to give tours, tell traditional stories, and consult on an ancient-style garden on the premises.

The information is not just of academic interest to Welsh. “My goal is to raise awareness of the old places among Native people. These sites need to be repatriated,” she says.

Health is another theme of the NAICCO Labor Day Weekend Powwow, according to Welsh. Displays will explain how to avoid and control diabetes and metabolic syndrome (a collection of pre-diabetic risk factors, including excess abdominal fat and high cholesterol and blood pressure). At past powwows, attendees have been challenged to sign a pledge promising to stick with a healthy lifestyle.

At NAICCO’s inception in 1975, founder Selma Walker, Welsh’s mother, also had the people’s health in mind. In the organization’s earliest years, it was known for working to meet the basic needs of central Ohio’s Native people. The intertribal non-profit soon expanded its purview to include community-building and cultural preservation. Welsh, who succeeded her mother in 1993, has continued this multifaceted legacy.

For more information on NAICCO and its two powwows (the Selma L. Walker Powwow takes place each year over Memorial Day weekend), go to naicco.org, email naicco@aol.com, or call 614-443-6120. 

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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