SALT LAKE CITY — This weekend most Utahns are celebrating the arrival of Mormon pioneer settlers in the state, but a celebration of a much deeper Utah history took place at Liberty Park on Saturday.
Native American Celebration in the Park emphasizes the fact that Utah's Indigenous peoples are still here by sharing Native American culture through music and dance. Utah, which was named after the Ute Tribe, is also home to Diné (Navajo), Paiute, Goshute and Shoshone tribes.
"In my opinion, Pioneer Day is basically celebrating Utah's history — and as Native Americans, we are Utah's history," 17-year-old dancer Kaden Denny said. "So it is important for us to keep our culture alive and be able to do this."
The powwow and festival featured dozens of dancers of all ages in traditional regalia accompanied by two bands as well as a number of vendors.
For Denny, her sister Jace Denny, 15, and cousins Naomi Smith, 14, and Bobbi Smith,14, the event is a way to honor the memory of their grandfather, who passed away in 2016 and whose birthday would have been on Saturday. The four teenagers have been dancing their entire lives and said the powwow circle, where the dances take place, is a source of healing power and represents the circle of life.
"This was the last place we saw our grandpa before he passed, so we celebrate him here," Kaden Denny said. "We know he's here and he enjoys seeing us dancing. This is how we express our love to him."
Dancer Harvey Spoonhunter, 67, traveled from Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming for the event after hearing about it from another participant. He's traveled from California to Connecticut for powwows, but this was his first year at the Celebration in the Park.
"Ever since I was able to walk, I've been dancing. It was in our family and our regalia has been handed down from one generation to another. It has a lot of significance and ties to family," Spoonhunter said.
"We had chiefs and ceremonial leaders before. Right now it's my responsibility to carry on traditional measures so the next generation can have what we have."
Regalia, the clothing and adornments that Native Americans wear during powwows or social dances are unique to the individual. Spoonhunter's regalia, for example, features bald eagles. "He's a messenger," Spoonhunter said. "He carries our prayers to the Creator."
Native American Celebration in the Park is not a new event; in fact, it's been going on for 28 years. Founder and organizer Cal Nez told audience members he started the event as a way to continue Native American voices and tradition.
"This is never going to be 'white man versus Indian.' This is about unity and sharing cultures. This is about people coming together," Nez said.
This year marks a sort of passing of the baton for Nez. He began handing over responsibility for the event to his children, who will run the event on their own starting in 2023. Courtney Nez, Cal Nez's daughter, said the event is hard work.
"It's mainly family or volunteers that help run this," she said. "Growing up, watching him do this, it's like July 24, we always know we're going to be busy."
She added that attendance is still down from the pandemic, as many Native American communities were hit hard by COVID-19. However, she hopes that the event will grow in the future and that, with additional volunteers and fundraising, the $5 entry fee used to cover the event expenses can be discontinued.
"As Native Americans, obviously COVID has affected us a lot more and it's taken a lot of our elders," she said. "But I'm hoping we'll grow more."