OCEANSIDE — The weekend of June 13 and June 14, thousands of Native Americans from dozens of tribes congregated at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside for its 13th Intertribal Powwow, the largest yet. More than 100 dancers resplendent in feathers, bells and brightly colored traditional dress marched out onto the sacred arena to the steady beat of drums for their Grand Entrance.
The mission has been tied to the indigenous Luiseño band since its founding in 1798. It was not a happy relationship at first — the natives were forcibly baptized and made to build the mission. Once sand painters and hunters, the Luiseños were educated and turned into farmers and fishermen. Now, more than 200 years later, the Luiseños and the mission brothers are active partners, and the powwow is a kind of homecoming for the scattered Native Americans with Luiseño blood.
“The way I look at it, that’s the past,” event organizer Russell Romo said. “We got to work with each other. The missions help us a lot … because they know this is our mission.”
The powwow is hardly just for Luiseños, however. The San Luis Rey event comes near the beginning of an annual lineup of gatherings that form a kind of trail throughout the southwest. After coming to Oceanside, many of the attendees will go to Barona, Sycuan and Pechanga, and then on into the deserts. Members of every tribe in the nation, from Navaho to Seneca, come to the mission event to have fun and learn each other’s cultures.
“Every year, the strength of the arena grows and the extended family of the San Luis Rey band grows,” Randy Pico, emcee of the event, said.
Many come to compete in one of eight dance categories representing a range of continental styles. There are dancers who make a living just by working the powwow circuit for prize money. None of the winners of the San Luis Rey powwow got rich that weekend — the maximum prize was just $125 — but the competition lists were full anyway.
“I dance every powwow that I can find,” David Fourfeathers of the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Scottish tribes said. “I just really enjoy doing it.”
Of course, not everyone attends to socialize. Pala band members Henry and Angie Smith come every year just to watch the dancing and enjoy the food. Native Italian Tony Baglioni from San Marcos, on the other hand, came to the powwow to find himself.
“I’m a spiritualist and I’m trying to connect with something inside that declared that I’m a shaman,” he said, shaking a rattle in time to the drums.
Regardless of the personal motivations of the attendees, the powwow has been growing since it started 12 years ago. The first year, there were 20 dancers and two drums. This year there were 150 dancers and seven drums, and next year’s powwow will likely be even bigger.