When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in the U.S. in March, Dan Simonds, a member of the Pequot tribe in Connecticut and a vendor who sells wampum jewelry, couldn’t help but wonder how it would affect his community.
For centuries, Native Americans from various tribes have come together at pow wows, dancing and singing in honor of their ancestors. The pandemic threatened that sense of community.
In an effort to continue the tradition of Native American gatherings, Simonds came up with a solution: he, along with two others he had met at prior powwows, would move everything online. Together with Whitney Rencountre and Stephanie Hebert, Simonds started Social Distance Powwow, a Facebook page where vendors, dancers and singers can share their talents.
“It started out of a place of ‘what next?’” he recently explained to In The Know. “‘What are we all going to do?’ And we really didn’t have a place like Social Distance Powwow before Social Distance Powwow.”
Simonds said he initially reached out to Hebert, whom he had met years ago at the Denver March Powwow, in an effort to recruit an MC — or master of ceremonies — for the online powwow (traditionally, the MC is responsible for keeping powwow participants informed about what’s going on). Hebert, a Texas park ranger and member of the Mi’kmaq tribe, immediately accepted.
“As soon as I saw what was going on and saw that this virus was going to be something long-term, I knew that this had the potential to be something really special,” Hebert said.
Simonds also sold Rencountre, a member of the Crow Creek Sioux tribe whom he had met at the Black Hills Powwow in South Dakota, on the concept of virtual powwows.
“This isn’t the first time around we hear about how smallpox and the Spanish flu and many other diseases impacted our people historically,” Recountre shared with In The Know. “I can’t even imagine during those days, the millions and millions of people that were impacted by those diseases.”
Rencountre added that the pandemic has added an extra layer of stress to the many challenges that Indigenous people experience. Often ignored by mainstream media, Native Americans have long fought for visibility in their own country. Additionally, they must also deal with centuries of historical trauma, lack of economic resources and a disregard for tribal sovereignty.
Social Distance Powwow is meant to raise awareness of those issues while also bringing people from different tribes together, Hebert said.
“If we raise issues to the national level, whether it’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, sobriety, medical concerns — the exposure is there,” she said. “And if nothing else, it shows that we have way more in common than we do have things that separate us and differentiate us from each other.”
More than just a Facebook group
Over the course of the past several months, Social Distance Powwow has seen its following grow to an impressive 218,000 members, gaining coverage from The Associated Press and other media outlets along the way. And while its followers may live in areas where social distance regulations have questionably eased and in-person interactions are now more common, the Facebook group is still very much active.
In many ways, it has become more than just an online platform for Native American artists to share their work — members also share personal stories and struggles with one another.
“We’ve had people message us that Social Distance Powwow kept a roof over their heads at a time where they otherwise would not have been to sell their wares and keep their families sheltered,” she said.
The group has had a particularly positive impact on Native American teenagers — a demographic that has seen alarmingly high suicide rates in recent decades. For many of them, Social Distance Powwow has become a place where they can recognize one another’s uniqueness and enjoy each other’s presence, albeit digitally.
“Pre-pandemic, the youth were heavily involved in our celebrations like this,” Rencountre said. “So, it’s really been a place for them to gather as well … I think a lot of times, places could turn negative — a lot of bullying and a lot of cyberbullying and a lot of other things affect them. But I think having a place that’s positive and uplifting, it gives them that much more of a safe place to take risks and to really own their culture and their cultural identity.”
This holds particularly true for members who also identify as LGBTQIA+ and two-spirit people, Hebert added.
“They’re not often in a place to be themselves and to really embrace who they are,” she said. “We are giving people a place to belong, to acknowledge who they are and however they choose to identify.”
And, as Social Distance Powwow continues to serve as a safe space for Native Americans across the country, its founders have even bigger plans for the future. The hope is that the Facebook group will turn into a nonprofit organization that can someday host in-person powwows.
“We’ve had a lot of themes themselves come up on our page,” Simonds said. “So with those themes, we’re hoping to have yearly themes of powwows, you know, like celebrating sobriety powwow, you know, honoring our youth powwows. So hopefully in the future, we’ll have different years where we can have in-person powwows.”
If you would like to learn more about the Native American community, consider reading about these Native American girls who did the “Don’t Rush” challenge.
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