Richmond powwow honors Native American culture and veterans: ‘It helps the native community be seen.’
on November 13, 2023
The atmosphere was joyous at Veterans Hall in Richmond Saturday, where more than 100 people celebrated Native American culture with drumming, singing, crafts, food and the traditional dancing contest.
This year’s 13th Annual Richmond Contest Powwow was held during Native American Heritage Month and on Veterans Day, which organizers saw as an opportunity to honor the many native people who have served in the military.
“It is great that we are finally being recognized,” said Jordan Wilson of Stockton, whose family is part of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. “Having a whole month and changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, it helps the native community be seen.”
Wilson said tribes, especially in the Bay Area, have worked hard to bring attention to Native American culture. Powwows teach the traditions to the next generation and help native merchants make a living.
At least 15 tables of merchandise were set up inside and outside of Veterans Hall on Saturday. Serah Zemaryalai and her sister, Katelyn, were selling their beadwork for the first time at one. They learned the craft from their mother when they were children. Now full-time students in San Jose, they still enjoy the craft, which they take up only when they are in a positive state of mind, Zemaryalai said. “All of our beadwork has happy energy.”
Powwows aren’t just for the native community, Zemaryalai said. They give others a chance to experience the vibrant culture.
“People talk about us as if we are in the past, especially in history class, like ancient relics,” she said. “But we are still here, and we still exist, and we are thriving with our families and our communities.”
Selling beadwork also invites conversations and questions. Merchant Luna Juarez, of Sacramento, has found that to be true from powwow to powwow. When people admire her artistry, they often want to learn more about her culture, which Juarez — who is Apache and Mechica — is eager to talk about.
“It’s a way to keep our traditions alive and share them with others,” she said.
In Richmond, that responsibility rests on a small community of about 1,250 people from various tribal nations. The region’s earliest inhabitants were the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, who lived and settled on the land around 5,000 years ago. The Ohlone lived a stable and peaceful existence, with a culture based on strong community ties, spiritualism and art. They built extensive shellmounds along the bay. But their way of life and even their massive shellmounds were destroyed by the Europeans who colonized the region. On Saturday, the Ohlone’s presence was felt strongly and immediately, as the powwow opened with an Ohlone blessing.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Native Americans now make up only 1.1% of the Richmond population.
Sulema Fragozo is part of that population. A Richmond resident and member of the Yaqui tribe, Fragozo has been going to powwows since she was a child and finds them nostalgic. She said they give people an opportunity to reconnect with their ancestry.
Fragozo took special joy in the powwow at Veterans Hall, where music thrummed, children played and families celebrated with multiple generations.
“It means a lot for me to be here,” she said, “and for the powwow to be in Richmond.”
The next powwow will be in Oakland, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Dec. 2 and 3 at the La Escuelita Gym and Great Room, 1050 Second Ave. The event is free.
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