This Columbus Day weekend, the Harlem River Field on Randall’s Island in New York City was host to this year’s Pow Wow and Indigenous Peoples’ Celebration. Around five hundred participants from as far as South Dakota and Hawai’i gathered for three days of dancing, drumming, socializing, camping, buying handicrafts, and eating frybread at the Iroquois Eatery. But most of all, the pow wow served as a potent reminder of Columbus’s legacy. Its organizer, the non-profit Redhawk Native American Arts Council, made its goal clear: “to reclaim and redefine [Columbus Day] to celebrate the rich cultures and histories of indigenous people in the Americas, rather than a day dedicated to the forced colonization of native peoples,” according to the organization’s website.
Bill Crouse, the weekend’s MC and a Seneca from the Allegany Reservation in western New York, spoke to a crowd of hundreds, emphasizing this reclamation of the national holiday that a growing list of cities, including Minneapolis and Albuquerque, have already abolished. “We are here to celebrate in spite of Columbus,” Crouse said. “Because how do you discover a place where millions of people already reside?”
Gustavo, 32, from NYC, assembled his Aztec headdress, which ended up more than five feet high. “You can’t carry this on a subway,” he said. As for Columbus Day, he said, “Celebrating Columbus Day is celebrating murder, celebrating stealing land.”
L to R: Elsa Hoover, 20, Minnesota; Michelle Crowfeather, 20, “currently Phoenix;” Kendall Harvey, 18, New Mexico. Hoover, Crowfeather and Harvey are Columbia students and members of the university’s Native American Council.
“They’re making a federal holiday to celebrate genocide, to celebrate oppression,” Crowfeather said. She is one of the lead organizers of Columbia’s Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which aims to raise support for a campus plaque in honor of the Lenni Lenape, the people who first settled the land on which Columbia now stands (and who are not currently recognized anywhere on campus).
Hoover, another organizer of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, pointed out, “It’s the only time we’re ever talked about—people don’t believe we exist, on the East Coast, particularly.” And with the international Indigenous Peoples’ Movement, she said, there’s been a new swell of awareness and support. Along with that, Hoover said, “It’s a real comfort for Native students to have a pow wow so close at hand, to be able to connect with each other.”
Vernon Chrisjohn, 75, from Malden, New York, is an Oneida craftsman and bowmaker, and was at the fair selling an array of bows. “They say Columbus discovered a new land—this is how they put it down in history—but it’s not the truth. Tell the people what was real, let them decide for themselves how they feel.”
Jeremy, 34, from Arizona, is Navajo, and wearing an Eastern Woodlands outfit. When asked for his opinion of Columbus Day, he said, “Who was that?”
Food options included buffalo chili and venison sausage.
Liliana, 9, and Talyah, 9.
Cody Coe, 37, from South Dakota, a member of the Dakota Sioux. His outfit is for the Northern Traditional Dance. “I made it all by hand,” he said. “It’s all natural. I’m trying to stay like our ancestors.”
Elizabeth Royal, 30, from New York, and Valerie Vivera, 17, from Connecticut. “We go to pow wows every Columbus Day weekend.”
Jarvis Spruce, 35, from Western New York. “To us, Columbus Day is nothing.” As for the pow wow, “When you experience the whole thing, it’s spiritual. It puts things in perspective, makes you think about the understanding of nature and wildlife they had back then.”
Atsa Zah, 19, from Richmond, Rhode Island.
Aztec dancers prepare to enter the ring.
Inside one of the on-site teepees.
Ashlyn, age 6, and Marla, her mother. This style of regalia is called “fancy shawl.”
Chaske, age 6, who specializes in hoop dancing.
Lining up before the 1 p.m. Grand Entry.
Rainmaker, from NYC. He made his whole outfit, which is fringed with hair from his friend, a member of the Mohawk Tribe, who recently passed away.
Vinny Goombar, left, and Paul Lopez, right.
Vinny Goombar, 67, from NYC, and Paul Lopez, 50, from City Island, are two members of Redrum Motorcycle Club, which describes itself as “an Indigenous, First Nations, Native American Based Bike Club.” Goombar and Lopez emphasized its motto: “Positivity on Two Wheels.”
Goombar said that when Columbus landed, the Native Americans were kind to him—and “he took their kindness for weakness.”
Amira, 15, from Shinnecock, New York, in a Fancy Shawl outfit.
Carol Lewis, 61, from NYC. Lewis, of Cherokee and Yakama descent, in an Ojibwe jingle outfit.
Adam Nordwall, 34, and his daughter Nichole, 13, from Nevada. Adam wears a Grass Dancer outfit, and Nichole a Northern Traditional Dancer outfit. Like many others at the pow wow, Adam said he usually goes to an indigenous gathering during Columbus Day weekend.
A dancer in the “Tiny Tots” category (ages five and under).
Daryl Thomas, 38, and Sonia “Ascawawa” (Wildflower) Thomas, from Narragansett, Rhode Island, in Northeast-style regalia. Daryl said, “This is just the quick version. In the real version, I take off my shirt.”
Sonia “Ascawawa” Thomas.
The Teen Women Fancy Shawl contest.
Valerie Vivera, 17, in her jingle regalia.
A view of the scene at Harlem River Field.
Photography by Molly Dektar.
Molly Dektar is from North Carolina. She has an MFA from Brooklyn College and lives in Brooklyn.