The death of a 4-year-old girl who was to dance at the Mankato Powwow cast a pall over the annual event, but participants from tribes across the Upper Midwest and Canada shared the grief and were glad to be together for the 49th year at Land of Memories Park.

Nytalia Ashes, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was camping in a tent with her family at the park’s campground when high winds downed a branch that fell into their tent early Friday morning. Others in the tent were not injured.

Powwow participants held ceremonies honoring her, including a traditional blanket ceremony to help raise funds for the family.

Dave Brave Heart, of Mankato and an organizer of the event, said the tragedy weighed on everyone’s minds but said having the support of so many people at the powwow helped ease the pain for participants and the family.

Brave Heart said anticipation has been high for the return of the powwow in person this year.

“We’re all very excited to be back.”

This year’s event also featured some new food vendors including buffalo burgers and a coffee stand.

Saturday featured the princess contest for Junior Miss and Miss contestants. “That’s always a big deal,” Brave Heart said.

Brave Heart said more Native Americans were attending the Mankato event this year because others have been canceled.

“A lot of powwows are being canceled again this year because they are indoors. The Rapid City Expo is a huge one that was cancelled again this year.”

Participants and guests at the powwow were encouraged but not required to wear masks.

Native communities have some of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, but they’ve also had high rates of hospitalizations and deaths.

“There are a lot of tribal members that lost their lives. There are always those (health care) disparities we face,” Brave Heart said.

One of the Mankato Powwow’s longtime announcers, Danny Seaboy and his wife, of Sisseton, South Dakota, died of COVID last year.

On Friday evening the powwow held a “Wiping of the Tears” ceremony for anyone affected by COVID.

Jerry Dearly, another longtime announcer, returned to emcee, something he’s done for about three decades.

Asked what makes a good powwow announcer, Dearly answered in Lakota. “Did you understand that,” he asked a visitor who said they didn’t. “That’s the first thing you need to be a good announcer is the Lakota language.” The other key to being a good announcer, he said, is a deep knowledge of Native culture and history.

His language skills were built over decades, including his career teaching at Sisseton and in the Twin Cities, where he now lives. And he’s been deeply involved in Native spirituality, culture and activism, including the American Indian Movement.

“I’ve been a dancer at powwows since I was 5,” said Dearly, 72. He emcees at powwows across the country. “I’m retired from teaching, but I still do this.”

Dearly has a strong sense of humor, at one point talking about his commitment to sobriety. “I’m also a recovering Catholic,” he said. “I always said organized religion is for people who don’t want to go to hell and spirituality is for people who have been there.”

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