Every year since our first Berkeley pow wow in 1993, I have borrowed a chalker from the city parks department—the kind with wheels that they use for marking softball playing fields—to lay out the pow wow circle. In the late afternoon of the day before the event, our pow wow committee meets on the grassy lawn of Civic Center Park. I bring a rope about 12 paces long, the chalker, and a large bag of powdered chalk. We explain what we are doing to all the high school students relaxing there or playing Frisbee, and once they understand they gladly move to one side. A member of the committee holds one end of the rope in the exact center of the park. We tie the other end of the rope to the chalker and another person pushes it in a perfect circle with about a 60 foot diameter. On the east end of the circle we chalk a turtle’s head, on the west end a tail, and four turtle feet in between. It has now become a special place, the pow wow arena.
Tomorrow the pow wow dancers will be dancing inside the turtle circle, and at particular times the MC will also invite the spectators into the circle to join in certain dances.
The turtle’s head marks the entrance into the arena. To one side are tables for the MC (this year Randy Pico, Luiseño), the arena director (Henry Johnson, Paiute), the coordinator (Gino Barichello, Muscogee), and other organizers. Posted near the MC table are an eagle staff and flags, including the US flag. These are carried around the dance circle by honored elders during the Grand Entry at the beginning of the pow wow, and at the closing. The eagle staff, a high curved wooden staff with eagle feathers attached, is equivalent to a flag for Native Americans.
At the south end of the turtle circle is the host southern drum, which this year is Rockin Horse, and at the north end is the host northern drum, All Nations. Both are based in the Bay Area. The northern and southern drums represent different styles and traditions.
Continuing around the dance circle are shade canopies where the dancers and their families and friends rest between events. The circle beyond that is a walkway, and finally the outside circles consist of Native vendors selling arts and craft items, mostly hand made, and Indigenous food.
Inside and around the pow wow circle violence, drugs, or alcohol are never permitted. The arena has been blessed with prayer and sage; it has taken on a special atmosphere and become spiritual ground.
Learning how to live in indigenous ways does not come easy to many people of European backgrounds, coming from such a long checkered history of aggressive domination justified as bringing the gifts of civilization to the world. But every year that I have worked on the pow wow I have felt the power of Native people increasingly impact our world with their living philosophy of peace, community, and sustainability.
Our pow wow circle is a turtle because the turtle symbolizes the American continent. On the back of the turtle on our logo is a map of the Americas. The concept comes from an ancient creation story of the Great Flood, when all the animals clung to the turtle’s back, then dove down one by one to the bottom of the sea, each returning with a handful of earth which they placed on the turtle until the continent was formed. Native people often call the Americas Turtle Island. Our pow wow committee received the turtle island symbol from a group of North and South American Indigenous elders, who came together in Ecuador in 1991 to fulfill a prophesy that when the eagle of the North and the condor of the South joined together after 500 years, Native people would experience a cultural renewal. With each Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow I feel that cultural renewal increasing and changing the world.
This year Berkeley Indigenous Peoples Day Pow Wow and Indian Market will be held in Civic Center Park on Saturday, October 9, 10am to 6pm. Sponsored by the City, it is always free.