Arts & Culture

More native voices at this year’s Northwest Folklife Festival

A hoop dancer at last year’s WONL powwow at Northwest Folklife Festival.
A hoop dancer at last year’s WONL powwow at Northwest Folklife Festival. Courtesy

For Puget Sound folks, Memorial Day Weekend means the Northwest Folklife Festival, which has celebrated world folk cultures in the Seattle Center annually for 45 years. But one culture has only recently been given a bigger place at Folklife: Native America.

This festival will see the fourth year of the powwow (Monday) and Coastal Day (Sunday). But one of the host drum groups, Southern Express Singers, will also be part of the Saturday night showcase highlighting this year’s theme — the power of the human voice.

“The presence of native arts has been increasing compared to the past,” says Kim Camara, director of the Welcome to Our Native Land group that runs the powwow and a 13-year Folklife board member. “But we are still the least represented of all cultural groups generally.”

The significance of having a native voice represented is huge.

Kim Camara, Folklife board member and powwow co-organizer

Part of the problem, says Camara, is that many in the Native American community just aren’t aware of the festival. There’s also a cultural difference in the whole structure. To participate in the festival, groups must make an application with demo recordings well in advance, which is just not something native performing groups usually do.

“With powwows, if you’re invited you just show up,” says Camara. “You don’t go through this application thing.”

There’s also the expense involved in supplying power, canopy and seating, which performers have to do themselves. Folklife doesn’t pay its performers.

So for the past few years, Camara has been acting as Folklife’s informal tribal liaison and grant writer. After busking outside Key Arena for a couple of years, the Southern Express drum group had asked to be a presence on the festival’s stages. With Camara’s help, they ended up kicking off the focus program for the festival’s 40th anniversary. In 2013, Camara helped bring about the Welcome to Our Native Land powwow, which became an annual event on the Totem Pole green, and the Sunday Coastal Cultures Day, which this year includes flutists, singer, dancers, drummers, tribal leaders and a grand entry honoring Metis Nation chief and president Bruce Dumont from British Columbia.

250 Estimated number of Indian tribes in the greater Seattle area

Southern Express is back on the main stage in the Special Focus Showcase on Saturday night, which includes shape note singing, a Bulgarian choir, a cappella soul group The Main Attraction, gospel choir The Sojourners and gospel-fusion singer Khari Wendell McClelland.

“The significance of having a native voice represented is huge,” Camara says.

For head singer Denny Stanley Jr., though, it’s a little nerve wracking.

“This is my first time at Folklife as a stage performer, not just busking,” he says. “I’m a bit nervous. But I close my eyes and tell myself I’ve got it.”

Soft-spoken and serious, 32-year-old Stanley (Navajo/Shawnee/Creek/Ute) has been singing since he was a child in Berkeley, California. Part of his father’s drum group, and learning songs from his grandfather too, he mostly sang Northern style — a higher velocity, more intense style of singing than the Southern style he sings with Southern Express. (A third style, original, is more one-level singing with no words, says Stanley.)

Then Stanley began helping out with a friend’s drum group.

“Suddenly we were getting calls left and right to host powwows,” he remembers.

Hear Southern Express Drums play a flag song from a 2015 Swinomish powwow.

Stanley moved to the Northwest in 2006 for family reasons and lives in Milton. But the group continues with around eight members from Seattle to Tacoma, coming from the Kiowa, Shawnee, Creek, Omaha, Colville, Apache, Hopi, Navajo and Tlingit tribes. Since 2002, they’re been winning competitions like the Simnasho, Oregon, powwow in 2012 and hosting powwows from Yakima to San Francisco.

For the Folklife performance — around 15 minutes — they’ll sing their own songs, with Stanley possibly performing a grass dance (a traditional powwow dance originating from Omaha as a way of stomping down long grass). Because he grew up part of several tribes and doesn’t speak any one language, Stanley’s songs are more vocalizations than words. But he estimates he knows hundreds of them, each for a different occasion.

When you get together, the feeling’s real good. Sometimes … you mess up. But I was taught to always enjoy singing, to be positive.

Denny Stanley Jr., Southern Express Singers

“It feels different every time,” he says, of the group. “But when you get together, the feeling’s real good. Sometimes … you mess up. But I was taught to always enjoy singing, to be positive.”

The group also works to stay positive around the big handmade drum they use, a red-framed instrument with yellowed steer hide called Grandpa Red. Each member of the group beats time with handmade wooden and leather sticks, bringing out the drum’s deep, resonant tone.

“It takes care of us when we’re around it,” says Stanley.

This year’s festival is themed around the human voice as the home and expression of a culture, and the rest of the weekend features singing styles from yodeling to beatboxing, participatory sing-ins from kirtan to Bach to sea chanteys, a Seattle choirs showcase, other folk groups and soloists, and Seattle Opera’s “Our Earth,” an opera for young audiences about the environment. The theme is also explored through film, visual arts, workshops and panel discussions.

Having Southern Express perform as part of that theme is highly appropriate, says Camara.

“The native community is all about song,” she says. “And it brings more nonnative people to an exposure and understanding of the coastal and powwow traditions. There are over 250 tribes in the greater Seattle area. People just don’t know that. … There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

Northwest Folklife Festival

When: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday (May 27)-Sunday. 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday.

Where: Seattle Center, 321 Mercer St., Seattle.

Admission: $10 suggested donation.

Tip: Parking is very difficult. Take public transport if possible.


Native arts at Folklife

Southern Express Singers: 8:05 p.m. Saturday at Bagley Wright Theater, 155 Mercer St., Seattle.

Coastal Cultures Day:

11 a.m.-7 p.m. (grand entry at 1 p.m.) Sunday at Totem Pole Green, Seattle Center.

Powwow: 10:45 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday at Totem Pole Green, Seattle Center.