Fourth of July celebrations are interwoven in Flagstaff’s cultural traditions since 1876. Townspeople honored the day with parades, games, speeches, and rodeo. Organizers within the Elks’ Club put on the annual Fourth of July show “The Days of ’49” that included a parade of vehicles, floats, marching bands, and costumed groups holding banners. Fourth of July commemorations led up to the first “All-Indian Pow Wow” in 1930.
Devised by a group of local Anglo businessmen, the All-Indian Pow Wow showcased Flagstaff’s American Indian neighbors in parades, horse-racing contests, rodeo competitions, and ceremonial dancing each Independence Day weekend. During its heyday in the 1960s, the celebration brought to town as many as 100,000 people. Organizers promoted the Pow Wow as a way to acknowledge Native customs of ceremony, song, and dance. In reality, local service organizations and the business community leveraged Native culture for profit.
Event organizers sold souvenir programs describing the weekend’s special attractions. The programs also provided information about local Indigenous groups, much of which we would find culturally offensive today. The modern incarnation of the traditional pow wow evolved in the late 1870s from inter-tribalism on the western Great Plains and is a unique venue for various Indigenous groups to gather in a celebration of culture through song, dance, and feasting.
Social protest movements of the 1960s and early 1970s led to new awareness of white culture capitalizing on Native American customs for entertainment. Members of the American Indian Movement led a protest at the 1972 Pow Wow that resulted in 10 arrests. Demonstrators claimed the event exploited Indigenous peoples. The organizers cancelled the Pow Wow in 1973 but brought the three-day event back the next year.
After incidents of public intoxication, assault, and general disruption, city organizers moved the annual Pow Wow to the county fairgrounds outside of town by the mid-1970s. Because of the move, participation declined, and the city cancelled the event after 50 years. Though the Pow Wow is no longer part of Independence Day celebrations in Flagstaff, the city’s Chamber of Commerce holds a popular Fourth of July parade drawing a statewide crowd of revelers each year.
To learn more visit the Northern Arizona University Cline Library Special Collections and Archives online exhibit The Flagstaff All-Indian Pow-Wow.