Lilac Bowl, Riverfront Park
Downtown Spokane
August 25-27, 2017
Admission: Free

History of Gathering at the Falls

The Gathering at the Falls Powwow (GATF) has been a part of Spokane summers for more than a quarter century. However, the annual summer gathering at the Spokane Falls goes back to time immemorial, when native nations of the Pacific Northwest traveled to the Falls for large salmon fishing.  

As many as a million chinook (king) salmon made their way up the Spokane River each summer. Large camps of native fishermen caught as many as 300,000 of these 50-80 pound salmon. Along with fishing, the tribes competed in inter-tribal games and shared their cultures. 

This was before large commercial fishing and before the building of great dams along the Spokane and Columbia rivers in the early 20th century. Now, the Spokane River no longer gets the chinook salmon. 

The changes to the fish stock in the river struck a blow to economies of the Intermountain Northwest.  Early tourism to the City of Spokane had depended on visitors coming to see natural spectacle the chinook salmon swimming in large schools near the Falls. The native tribes in the area who counted on the fish for food and for trade experienced acute loss to an important part of their way of life.  

This history is remembered during the annual GATF Powwow. The logo for this event ties together the past and the present with the iconic depiction of the Spokane Falls and the swimming salmon swooping around the modern image of the Spokane clock tower. These symbols make their way into the beading on powwow royalty’s crowns as well. 

Powwow male dancers

The Powwow

Shane Garcia (Chair of the GATF Powwow Committee) and Jerry Crowshoe (Youth Powwow Coordinator) have been with the GATF planning committee since 2012. Together they have built the committee from three active members to the ten they have today.  The event itself has prospered and grown as well.  

Garcia said, “We have documented over 200 Tribes are represented at the event through our dancers and singers. However, our committee focuses on representing the local tribes who have historically utilized the land for ceremonial purposes, to harvest salmon, and to trade.” 

Friday, August 25th

The First Grand Entry - 7 pm

The powwow gets started on Friday evening with the first Grand Entry to the Lilac Bowl at Riverfront Park. What follows are a series of drumming, singing, and traditional dance exhibitions and competitions with categories for a wide range of performers. 

For both native visitors and non-natives alike, you will get to see and enjoy the traditional and fancy dancing regalia as well as music and dance traditions performed by youth, adults, and elders. 

Saturday, August 26th 

Powwow Grand Entries  - 1 pm & 7 pm

Dance Categories 

  • Men - Golden Age, Traditional, Grass, Fancy, Prairie Chicken
  • Women - Golden Age, Traditional, Jingle, Fancy
  • Teen Boys - Traditional, Grass, Fancy
  • Teen Girls - Traditional, Jingle, Fancy
  • Junior Boys - Traditional, Grass, Fancy
  • Junior Girls - Traditional, Jingle, Fancy
  • Tiny Tots

Dance Specials

  • Miss Gathering at the Falls, Tiah Bigsmoke - Fancy Shawl (Ages 16 and under)
  • Junior Miss Gathering at the Falls, Taylena Bigsmoke - Junior Girls Jingle (Ages 6-12)
  • Man vs. Woman Suyapi Dance Challenge
  • Open Mother/Daughter Dance 
  • Open Prairie Chicken vs. Men’s Grass
  • Women’s Traditional Dance

The Powwow Royalty Pageant

The outgoing GATF Powwow royalty, in their crowns, traditional regalia, and sashes are a prominent part of the event. Miss Gathering at the Falls, Tiah Bigsmoke, will lead the Fancy Shawl dance special. Junior Miss Gathering at  the Falls Taylena Bigsmoke will lead the Junior Girls Jingle dance special.  

The pageant will crown new royalty this year after judging entrants on their culturally themed essay, speech, dance, regalia, and personal interview, according to Pageant Coordinator, Matilda Sampson. She says. “The youth who enter represent their tribes, their families, and themselves.” The pageant is a fun way to empower them to network with other tribes and engage with their own traditions and to build skills for the future. 

Winners then go on to represent the GATF Powwow at ten other powwows throughout the year and are engaged with the Spokane community through service projects and being a part of the Lilac Festival Parade in the spring. 

Sunday, August 26th

Youth Powwow & Family Fun Day: 12 pm- 4 pm

The powwow weekend also includes a youth day to provide families with fun activities, community health, and higher education resources. This Family Fun Day is held in conjunction with the Youth Powwow. This year the hosts are Miss Spokane McKenzie Moody and retired Chicago Bear Levi Horn.

Powwow dancing is the central activity of the Youth Powwow and Family Fun Day with competitions for youth dancers (both in and out of traditional regalia) in the powwow circle. 

Other competitions (with trophies!) will include “fun categories that promote health, positive validation, and taking a healthy risk,” according to Crowshoe. 

Kids will also get to hang out with some of their favorite characters--Lego Batman, Lego Joker, and a Minion--who will be coming to dance and play. 

All types of dance are celebrated at the powwow.  Aztec Dancers and breakdancers will dance alongside the youth, to play alongside the youth in the day’s games and also to teach their dance style to the youth and expand their dance vocabularies. 

Powwow drummers

Fun for All at the Falls - Make the Most of Your Powwow Weekend

Diabetes Poker Fun Run/Walk: Saturday, August 26th: Registration at 8 am

Native American Art Market: Saturday, August 26th 10 am - 6 pm at the River Park Square

Food Vendors: Featuring Indian Tacos & Other Indigenous Cuisine

Etiquette: Be polite and defer to powwow participants for appropriate behavior. 

Photography/Videography: Listen to the Powwow MC for instructions, and always ask for permission before taking photos or video. Do not use images for commercial purposes. 

Build Community: Get to know each other. Ask questions, make new friends, and learn about native culture!


Powwow Into the Future

While the chinook salmon no longer come to the Falls, the people still gather there to remember and share in tribal culture that is vibrant, alive, and moving into the future. 

Organizers of the GATF powwow are very much involved in the activism to preserve and protect indigenous heritage and vital waterways for all people.  

The GATF Powwow committee contributed to the effort to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day in Spokane in 2016. 

In the last year, they also supported the efforts of water protectors at Standing Rock who camped near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline in an effort to protect the environment for future generations. 

In March of this year, Canada Island which is located on the Spokane River in Riverfront Park has been returned and rededicated to the Spokane Tribe with the name snxw meneɂ (sin-HOO-men-huh), which means “salmon people” in Salish. It is, as it was for generations, a gathering place “for prayers and a place for water protectors to gather to pray for the health of our water tributaries.” says Garcia. 

The Gathering at the Falls Powwow is a celebration of the living culture of native people. Despite the changes and challenges of the past, the people still gather to pray, to drum, to sing, and to dance. 

The dancers step and spin and let their bodies tell their stories in time with the rhythms, their carefully crafted regalia moving with them. If you watch carefully, focused on the colorful adornments particular to their tribe or clan, you may see in each feather, bead, and jingle, the stitching together of cultural memory, moving the dancer through the song and beyond.