ANADARKO, Okla. – For anyone who’s ever attended a pow wow within the United States, Canada or Mexico, chances are that Sammy White of the Kiowa Nation served as a master of ceremonies at one of them.
Whether it’s the annual Murrow Powwow near Binger, the Indian Hills Powwow outside of Oklahoma City, Arizona State University’s annual pow wow or Gathering of Nations, he is ready to help run a pow wow in a smooth, efficient manner.
To most in the pow wow world, White is known by his Kiowa name of Tone-Kei, which means ”Comes from the Water.” He began his duties as master of ceremonies in the late 1960s while working with the Native American Center of Oklahoma City, where he served as a liaison to the center’s urban Indian population. At one pow wow sponsored by the center at Oklahoma City’s Union Depot, Tone-Kei had to fill in a gap in the head staff.
”The master of ceremonies didn’t show, so they halfway challenged me to come forward and try emceeing,” he said. ”So I did, and I liked it. The good thing about it is the people listening liked it.”
This not only led to other master of ceremonies positions, but it also led to Tone-Kei’s work within the Oklahoma City media, giving that market’s print and broadcast media a Native perspective.
Beginning in the 1970s, Tone-Kei served as a guest host on the long-running Native radio show ”Indians for Indians,” broadcast from the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. Eventually, he became the permanent host, working with the show regularly for 15 years. Tone-Kei also hosted another radio program called ”The Indians’ Point of View” and held five-minute commentary spots on other radio stations.
In addition to his radio work and his job with the U.S. Postal Service in Oklahoma City, he hosted a television show called ”Tribes: Voices from the Land” and a newspaper column titled ”Tone-Kei Speaks,” in the Oklahoma Journal of Midwest City, where he likes to mention that he was paid $7 per column at that time.
”My wife was very instrumental in getting that column into the paper every week,” said Tone-Kei about his late wife, Bunny, who was Choctaw. ”She was my right hand, but I didn’t let anyone know that. She said, ‘If you tell anyone, I will stop helping you.’ She was a great help.”
In the early 1980s, Tone-Kei became the master of ceremonies of the inaugural Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, N.M., when it was held in the horse barn at the state fairgrounds before moving to its current location at ”The Pit” on the University of New Mexico campus.
”It just grew,” he said. ”Each year, it grew because, again, we ran it the way we would like to see a pow wow run. Nothing earth-shattering – we did the simple things in a good way and treated everyone good and fair. It’s been a contest pow wow since the first time around, so it’s still going, and going strong.”
Tone-Kei described Gathering as a ”homecoming” for many people, attributing its success in part not only to great dancers and singers and events such as Miss Indian World, but also to its director, Derek Mathews, who he said is one of the reasons he returns with his family every year.
”I think it’s because I made a vow many years ago with the director – Derek Mathews – that I would always come to the Gathering, whether I was a part of the head staff or not,” he said. ”Down through the years, I’ve kept that promise, because he’s come through with a lot of his promises in regard to me.”
This year was rare for Tone-Kei, who was unable to attend Gathering due to illness. However, arrangements were made for Tone-Kei to address the crowd via telephone. During the Gourd Dance portion, Tone-Kei’s personal Gourd Dance song was sung in his honor; and his son, Sammy, was there to dance for him.
For Tone-Kei, the size of a pow wow doesn’t matter. Near his home of Anadarko, Tone-Kei is a member of several organizations such as Kiowa Gourd Clan, Kiowa Black Leggings Society, and the Native American Marine Corps Veterans. On any given weekend, he might serve as master of ceremonies for one of these organizations or for other local pow wows.
Tone-Kei told Indian Country Today that it’s the planning and organization behind the pow wow that make it the most enjoyable for all.
”I like to go to places where it’s very well run. It’s just as easy to run a pow wow in a proper way as it is to not pay attention. I like to go to pow wows that are very well thought out throughout the year. It takes a long time to get the right people and come up with the right program. Prize money has to be where it’s respectable, and people will come back the following year as well, because everything ran so well. I like those kinds of pow wows. Sometimes, I’ve been to pow wows where there’s no planning. It’s just bad for everyone, including the singers, dancers and, of course, the audience.”
Tone-Kei said that he likes to be well prepared when he is asked to be a master of ceremonies, and he has certain standards that he has developed over the years in regards to being one. These standards that he would recommend to upcoming masters of ceremonies include be prompt, do the best you can, and ”find out what the committee is all about.”
He also said ”never to embarrass anyone in the audience or, for sure, never embarrass a dancer or a singer or anyone that’s a part of the pow wow. It’s just not done. It may seem in a joking way that it’s a lot of fun, but I’ve found that it’s not a lot of fun for someone that’s in your presence at a pow wow.”
Within the past few years, Tone-Kei has faced some difficulty in his life, including recent health problems that have restricted some of his traveling outside of Oklahoma. Yet Tone-Kei sees his role as a master of ceremonies as his service to the Native community and his source of strength. At press time, he had recently accepted a position as master of ceremonies at this year’s Red Earth Celebration in Oklahoma City.
”If I were to not continue to be a part of what’s happening in the Indian world, I don’t think I’d last very long, because it’s my life. I enjoy being a part of it, and it’s a wonderful feeling to have someone call and tell you they need you. ‘Could you be the master of ceremonies? Could you be an honoree?’ That’s quite a feather in your cap. I keep going as long as I’m needed. It helps me more than anyone else.”