A master of ceremonies

Dennis Bowen has been the master of ceremonies at the ASU Pow Wow for thirty-three years

Fluorescent lights shine down on the football field. Stacked on bleachers and huddled on the turf, hundreds of faces stand staring at one end of a vast, grass circle. 

Anticipation grows in the low chattering hums, clattering bells and shuffling feet. Flag poles shift under the glare of the sun. The tension breaks at the slow, steady build of a drum beat. Treble-tinted chants sweep through the air. 

Rhythm takes the stadium. It shakes the ground as hundreds of native dancers encircle the open field. Bending and beating, a furor of feather, color and noise flood the stadium. The once vacant space now rattles at the pounding of feet. 

As the procession files in and the singing subsides, a voice thunders and rejoices through the loud speaker.

“We stand on Mother Earth. We’ve been called to come and celebrate.”

Intertwined in song and ceremony, Dennis Bowen, a member of the Allegany Seneca and veteran master of ceremonies, marks the beginning of the 2018 ASU Pow Wow. 

Created in 1986 by the late Lee Williams, the ASU Pow Wow is one of the longest standing university powwows in the country. Initially started as a celebration of Native American ASU graduates, the event has grown with more purpose each year, bringing in attendees from across the U.S. and Canada.

Now entering his 33rd year emceeing at ASU and his 48th year emceeing in general, Bowen leads celebratory gatherings of over 562 Native American nations, carrying on a tradition passed down from his elders.  

The Master of Ceremonies is a coveted role in the powwow, guiding the groups along and narrating the day-long event for the crowd. The emcee brings energy to both the performing groups and onlookers. Tahnee Baker, the event coordinator of the powwow, said Bowen does exactly that. 

“Everyone just calls him Grandpa," Baker said. "He’s a powwow Grandpa. He really has this good, positive energy. He’s always there to help and always addressing others in a good, respectful, honorable way.”

Bowen emceed his first powwow in Tuba City, Arizona, at the age of 22. Since then, he’s traveled across North America, announcing events in nearly every territory, including the largest powwow in North America, The Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

In his travels, Bowen notes the power in varying traditions. 

“The powwow is an outstanding example of diplomacy,” Bowen said, “You see people who live in the mountains, people who live in the desert, in the prairies, who live in the woodlands or in the Great Lakes region, and you get them all together to a powwow, and they’re singing and dancing together.” 

Across different territories, tribes differ in language, customs and cuisine. Bowen reminisced on some of the delicacies, including alligator on a stick in the South, lobster in the East and smoked salmon in the Northwest. 

"My wife loves smoked salmon," he noted.

Though Bowen emcees across the U.S., he always finds his way back to Tempe for the ASU Pow Wow. 

This year, the three-day event featured two host drums, The Boyz from the North and The Wild Comanches from the South. The celebration also included gourd dancing, a Kiowa ceremony honoring warriors and veterans.

 The ASU Pow Wow moved locations a handful of times, taking place at the Sun Devil Stadium only once before. However, the 2019 Pow Wow marked the First Cultural Festival held since its renovation in mid-2018. Bowen said the larger venue changes very little except some practicalities. 

“There isn’t a difference as much as a larger venue will add more parking," he said. "If you go to any powwows, parking is always an issue."

Bowen said the stadium’s field provided a “nice, smooth dance surface" which was a relief for the many native dancers braving the grass in slim-soled moccasins. 

The schedule of events differs each day, but festivities typically run from early afternoon to late at night. Bowen is on his feet most of the day, trading off with fellow master of ceremonies Bart Pawaukee.

"When you’ve worked with them for years, and we’re getting older too, we’ll tell each other take a break, sit down, have some Gatorade, get in the shade," Bowen said. "We sacrifice our energy, but it is a happy time."

The two take turns announcing, keeping contest categories on schedule. Though the days are often long and tiring, Bowen said he does not mind it much. 

"We’ll get done late, maybe about 11 o’clock, even midnight, and we’re tired," he said. "But the singing, the music and seeing all the dancers energizes you. So you’re very tired, but you’re happy. It’s like therapy."

Though powwows are culturally a Native American event, those of other cultural backgrounds are encouraged to attend and immerse themselves in the unique tradition. Bowen said one of his favorite aspects of a powwow is the visible energy and peacefulness it brings attendees.

“When you go to the powwow, you sit there and watch and listen, and when it’s over and you go home, you are happy,” Bowen said. “You say 'what happened to me?’ And here, they touched the peacefulness inside of you.” 

Bowen also emphasized the overwhelming sense of community. 

"There’s a friendship that is magnetic where we draw in newcomers," he said. "If it’s their first time there, we treat them like they’re old friends."

Though being a traveling powwow emcee is a large part of Bowen’s life, his involvement in the Native American community reaches far beyond that role. 

Since his teenage years, Bowen has been an activist for human rights, especially in the Native American community. 

When he was young, Bowen lived through the building of the Kinzua Dam on Seneca land in the 1960s, which was fought against by the Seneca tribe. The construction was a large loss of Native American farmland and left 600 Seneca to relocate. 

Bowen said witnessing President John F. Kennedy order the construction and disregard Native American rights sparked a fire in him — and since then, he has not stopped working toward equality for Native Americans.

“I’m an activist, I’m a movement person," Bowen said. "It goes back to my childhood. When I was a teenager in the 60s, I was angry, and I was a part of a resistance, and I’ve continued that in my life, and I’ve done it to include justice for healthcare, justice in education.” 

In 1992, Bowen led members of the Seneca Nation of Allegany in the blockage of the Southern Tier Expressway to protest taxation on Native American businesses and water. He was recognized by the State of New York for his ability to remain non-violent through the protest.

In general, Bowen keeps his protest strategy similar to his demeanor: peaceful. However, there have been notable instances in his past that bring out a louder side of the soft-spoken man. 

“I was one of the three people that planted the first bureau of Indian Affairs over in Washington DC in 1971,” Bowen said. “I got arrested, and we had a hand-to-hand battle with about 350 riot police. There were only about 45 of us, and we battled it out and got the charges dropped. It was over water. They were stealing water from over 25 Indian nations and then getting them to sign over their water rights.”

Bowen describes a majority of his goals in activism as fighting for basic human needs, such as water and healthcare.

He keeps his focus in local communities, working in schools with children and counseling in hospitals. He also works with the SEVA Foundation, an organization focused on ending blindness globally. 

“Part of the belief that I’ve carried as an activist is ‘think globally, but work locally,’” Bowen said. “I am concerned about the national issues, but I work locally.” 

He passes down the passion to lead and fight to his children, ensuring he raises them to know the importance of making a stand. Native American tradition and thinking stay close to him in his lifestyle and while raising his family. 

A trait Bowen made a point to emphasize is humility. In his history of hosting and attending powwows, Bowen said he has picked up a lot of lessons, but one of the biggest, he said, was learning how to deal with swollen egos.

“When you practice being humble you kind of give the ego a break,” Bowen said. “Humbleness opens the door to relaxation and peace inside.”

While traveling the country, Bowen has gained a journeyman’s list of mantras and ideals he carries with him, but his true roots are found in how he nourishes his faith, which is an artifact of Bowen's upbringing. Bowen said one way he keeps his faith is by starting his mornings with a prayer and a tube of AIM toothpaste. 

Through both, he is reminded of his heritage. 

As the sun first seeps through the windows of his New York home, Bowen and his wife begin the day by offering a prayer of gratitude. He later wanders to the bathroom, opens the medicine cabinet and glances at the three letters adorning the side. 

AIM — yes, a dental hygiene product — but also the acronym for the American Indian Movement, a Native American advocacy group. 

“That reminds me of my friends,” Bowen said, “We’re from an age group where we’re older and got health problems and a lot of my friends have passed away, so I brush my teeth with AIM toothpaste, and I smile and say, ‘wow, we worked together, we did a lot, we’re still here.’”

Editor's Note: This article was originally published in print in State Press Magazine, vol. 19, issue 6 on April 17, 2019. 


Reach the reporters at  mmbarbe3@asu.edu and kcriley2@asu.edu or follow @meganbarbera  and @kiera_riley on Twitter.

Like The State Press on Facebook and follow @statepressmag on Twitter. 


Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.