STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Thousands will pour into Whalen Gymasium at Fort Lewis College today to see the riotous conclusion of Hozhoni Days Powwow, FLC’s longest-standing student tradition and one of the most vibrant celebrations of Native American culture west of the Mississippi.
While Hozhoni Days features a diverse range of activities, from singing to speaking to preparing traditional Native American foods, Yvonne Bilinski, director of FLC’s Native American Center, said that 49th annual Hozhoni Days Powwow – a major Native American dance competition that started Friday and ends today – would be by far the biggest crowd draw.
Bilinski said that the competition had attracted between 300 and 400 contestants from tribes throughout the country, including places as far-flung as Alaska and Wyoming, as well as the Four Corners.
She said male dancers would compete in traditional dancing, grass dancing and fancy dancing, whereas women would compete in traditional dancing, fancy shawl dancing and jingle dress dancing.
Bilinski said the audience typically swells to 3,000 for Saturday’s events, and that even watching a “Grand Entry” – where dance groups enter the gymnasium and move around the floor in an unbroken circle, eventually spiraling into the middle – was well worth the trip.
General admission costs $6; organizers will charge Durango High School and FLC students $3. Attendees 60 and older or 6 and younger are free.
Early Friday afternoon, about 15 able-bodied members of Wanbli Ota, the FLC student club that does much of the organizational and literal heavy lifting to prepare for Hozhoni Days, were unfolding metal chairs in Whalen Gymnasium.
As the group got wind that some of the event’s 26 vendors were arriving early in an attempt claim the best real estate inside the gymnasium, a tall student was deputized to serve as bouncer, the intimidating effect of his broad shoulders only occasionally undermined by his kind smile.
Because of the efforts of Wanbli Ota, the gymnasium was ready for the powwow to kick off with gourd dancing at 6 p.m.; another Hozhoni Days competition – the Miss Hozhoni Pageant – was already under way.
Bilinski said the traditional and modern talent portion of the pageant had taken place Wednesday, with some contestants telling jokes in Navajo while others serenaded judges on the electric guitar.
The winner will be named today.
Whereas critics of the Miss America Pageant contend that it celebrates an outdated, sexist and unrepentantly physical definition of feminine beauty, Bilinski said the Miss Hozhoni Pageant was a paragon of modern womanhood.
“Miss Hozhoni is a young woman who knows and practices her culture, a good student who’s found a way to marry tradition and modernity. She’s not what they might call a ‘pretty face.’ She’s a woman who’s intellectual and appreciative of history,” she said.
While Navajo contestants have historically dominated the Miss Hozhoni Pageant – Hozhoni means “days of beauty” in Navajo – Bilinski said that in the last three or four years, women from other tribes had seized first place.
“That’s really wonderful, because their culture is really different from Navajo – and it’s good for the Navajos to understand that there’s more out there,” said Bilinski.
The current Miss Hozhoni, Sunshine Perry, of the Shoshone-Bannock tribes of Idaho, will congratulate her successor today.