This isn't Jennifer Simon's first powwow. But it will surely go down as one of her best. Simon, 21, of Wichita, was named princess of the Mid-America All-Indian Center powwow Saturday, an honor her mother garnered back in the 1970s.
"I've got to stand around and look good," Simon — indeed looking good in white buckskin — joked of her duties, which include representing the center at other powwows around the region.
The powwow, which continues today, is shaping up to be one worth remembering for the center as well. It's the first two-day powwow since the center's well-publicized financial problems a few years ago. And despite blazing heat, the free event drew thousands to the center at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers.
Most of the early action was inside the air-conditioned center's main hall. Under banners representing dozens of tribes, a circle of a drummers pounded and sang. Around them moved a line of dancers dressed in shawls and shaking gourds. Applause followed the end of each song, and an announcer used the breaks to announce raffle winners, recognize individuals like Simon and explain what was coming next.
Creighton Moore, who was helping coordinate the powwow, said most of the songs are family stories that originated with Oklahoma tribes. "It's never recorded," he said. "It's done from memory."
Also on hand were 20 vendors selling necklaces, arrows, tacos, videos with American Indian themes and more.
Organizers say about half of those who attend the powwows are American Indians.
Liz Cox, who is not, visited with her husband and two daughters. Despite the heat, the family toured the center's permanent Indian village exhibit, which includes a grass house, arbor, tepee, food cache and drying rack.
"We want to give them something they don't normally get," Cox said of her daughter.
Apparently the drums and singing made a bigger impression than the architecture. "They have asked about the music — why it's the way it is," Cox said.
City officials say the center is now in good financial health. Bobbi Meairs, chairwoman of the center's board of directors, was pleased with Saturday's turnout, which looked like it would dwarf that of some recent one-day powwows.
"It's getting people aware that we are here again," she said. "We want to bring our culture back to the city."
Not that it had ever left.
With garment bag in hand, 19-year-old Mariah Yates of Wichita was waiting to don her purple-and-pink medicine dress to perform the jingle dance — named for the noise that accompanies it — which she said is used to heal people.
"It's part of my culture," said Yates, who is Cherokee. "We're not just people who dance around and wear feathers. We respect our elders. We pray for each other."
If you go
39th Annual Powwow
What: A celebration of Native American culture that includes gourd dancing and music, youth dancing contests, food, vendors
Where: Mid-America All-Indian Center, 650 N. Seneca
When: Noon to 6 p.m. today
How much: Powwow admission is free. Museum admission is $1.
For more information, 316-350-3340 or www.theindiancenter.org