Most head staff members of a pow wow are highly noticeable. The voices at the drum provide the music. The MC’s voice booms over the PA. The head dancers lead each and every song.
Yet, there are people walking in and out of the arena calling the shots: Lining up dancers before grand entry, choosing judges for a contest, providing water and coffee for singers, raffling off a shawl or blanket, keeping the MC informed.
They are the best-kept secret in the pow wow world: Arena directors.
The arena directors are the hardest-working members of a dance’s head staff. Freddy Banderas, Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, refers to the AD as “the boss of the arena.” For Thomas Muskrat, Cherokee, the AD is “The marshal.”
“Arena directors are important because they are the ones who guide the pow wow through its functions and procedures which, in turn, determines whether or not the pow wow itself is being carried out in a proper manner,” said George “Cricket” Shields, Pawnee, Otoe and Sioux. “They are the primary persons who will usually make the appropriate decisions–on the spot–about what takes place in the arena during a pow wow.”
Stories about the origin of the arena director vary from tribe-to-tribe. But, a common consensus among arena directors is that there has always been someone who keeps the circle moving.
“I’ve heard different stories told about it,” said Joe Bointy, Comanche and Kiowa. “I think the common one was that, at one time, the arena director was like the whipman. The whipman keeps order in the arena. They make sure everything is apropos, no one’s cutting up, running around or misbehaving.”
The point where someone becomes an arena director varies. Some are asked by elders or a pow wow committee to fill the position. In some cases, training starts as early as the teenage years. “The elders who’ve been there and have done it—they watch the younger people coming up,” said Muskrat. “They keep up with them, watch them and see them. There’s a lot of respect in it.”
For Randy Frazier, Prairie Band Potawatomi, his arena director career began at the University of Central Oklahoma’s annual pow wow. “They needed an arena director, and I’d never done it before,” he explained. “I said, ‘I’ll try it.’ That’s where I started, twenty-something years ago.”
A major requirement to being an arena director is long-time pow wow participation and observation. Pow wow committees will select who they think best serves at keeping the flow of the pow wow going.
“An arena director needs to know the protocol of that particular arena,” Bointy said. “They’ve got to be familiar with the social practices and the mores of that particular culture. Whether it be the northern United States or the southern United States, different tribes do different things a little differently. The arena director would want to go with what’s appropriate for that area.”
In addition to an ability enforce protocol, many AD’s are selected for their desire to lend an extra hand when needed. Banderas continues his arena director work on many weekends throughout the year.
“I just like helping people out when they ask me,” he said. “It gives me something to do on the weekends. People need help. Sometimes, they can’t find an arena director, so I’ll more than likely volunteer sometimes to help them out.”
Being an arena director isn’t easy, but each AD serves for different reasons.
“I enjoy seeing the dancers come in,” said Charlie Soap, Cherokee. “You meet so many people. You’re friends with people. That’s what I enjoy. What I enjoy watching is the dancers—their grace, their beauty. The amount of work they put into the featherwork and the beadwork. The pride that they show that they’re Indian people.”
Ultimately, being an arena director comes down to one notion—placing others before themselves.
“You can’t be selfish,” said J.C. Pewo, Comanche and Kiowa. “You think of the people. You think of that drum. You think of everybody before yourself…You keep the pow wow going.”