Seattle's Rainier District Pow Wow was founded in 1934 as a day-long, community-wide picnic designed to lift spirits and promote cohesion in the midst of the Great Depression. Like its cousin, downtown Seattle’s Potlatch, the event involved elements of commercialism, civic pride, family fun, and misinterpretations of Indian culture. Potlatch ended in 1941, when the United States entered World War II, but the Pow Wow continued until 1992, a mirror reflecting the changing face of the community and the world around it. Born during hard times, the festival drummed up business for local retailers in the 1930s; prompted military themes and patriotism in the 1940s; added a “largest family” contest during the Baby Boom of the 1950s; and included a “Battle of the Bands" in the 1960s. The bathing beauty contests were dropped in response to complaints from feminists in the 1970s. The Pow Wow queen and princesses were gone by the end of the 1980s. By the time the last Pow Wow was held, in July 1992, a kids lipsync contest was on the program, along with "The Electric Slide," presented by the "Senior Center Sliders." From one metamorphosis to the next, Pow Wow remained a highlight of the summer for generations of South Seattle residents.
Rainier Valley businessmen began planning what was initially called the All Southeast Picnic around the same time that their downtown counterparts were organizing the resurrection of the Potlatch festival. Both events were characterized by what historian Lorraine McConaghy has called "misappropriated Indian motifs," which were seen as "romantic, exotic, picturesque, and distinctly Northwest," even though they had virtually nothing to do with the Native Americans of the Northwest (Lorraine McConaghy).
Potlatch -- launched in 1911, suspended in 1914, and then revived in 1934 -- was very loosely based on a ceremony of gift giving and feasting that was practiced by Native Americans on the northern coast but never by Seattle-area Salish peoples. The word "Pow Wow" derives from the Algonquian "pau wau," originally meaning "spiritual leader," later applied to ceremonial gatherings by East Coast tribes. But the organizers of Seattle’s festivals were striving for diversion, not authenticity.
The precursor to what became the Pow Wow was held at Seward Park on July 15, 1934, a Sunday. The Rainier Businessmen’s Club joined other South End civic groups in sponsoring the event. The date was chosen to avoid conflict with the newly resurrected Potlatch. The planners scheduled a full day of activities, beginning with speeches by Seattle Mayor Charles L. Smith and other dignitaries; and continuing with sports and games, including a swim meet, horseshoe pitching, egg rolling, and three-legged and sack races. A beauty queen (Miss Lovilia Browning, Queen of the South Beacon Hill Improvement Club) and the 125-member Young Man’s Band were on the program. However, an unseasonable downpour forced the participants to pack up and go home early.
The crowd huddled under trees or sat in their cars and listened to the welcoming speeches through what the Rainier Valley Times called "the splendid mechanism of the loud speaker." The rest of the day’s events were cancelled and rescheduled for the afternoon of Monday July 23. "The committee in charge and the club presidents have worked too hard over the details of this picnic to be defeated by a mere summer shower and will carry on Monday," the paper reported (July 19, 1934).
Nags and Beauties
Despite the inauspicious beginning, the All Southeast Picnic quickly morphed into the Pow Wow, a South End institution for 59 years. The next year, the "second annual Rainier-Beacon Pow Wow" was held as a finale to the Potlatch celebration. Again it was scheduled as a day-long event, on Sunday, August 4, 1935. This time, the weather cooperated. The activities included a boat race sponsored by the Seattle Outboard Motor Association. Free coffee, lemonade, and orangeade was served to people who brought their own containers. "Chief Yellow Lark," a supposed "full-blooded" Lakota Sioux, was there, along with a group of Muckleshoot Indians. Prizes were given to the boy and girl who appeared dressed in what the judges thought was the best Indian costume.
But the main attraction of this and subsequent Pow Wows during the Depression years was a raffle designed to entice customers into local stores. Merchants donated prizes -- including, in 1935, such big-ticket items as a Crosley "Shelvador" refrigerator and a Hot Point electric range -- to be given away in a drawing at the Pow Wow. The only way to get tickets for the raffle was to buy something from a neighborhood retailer. "More than twenty-five valuable prizes will be given away and the public has only to ask for a chance on these prizes when making a purchase at any store in this district," the Beacon Hill News reported. "The committeemen from the various clubs are donating their time and energy to stimulate business in our community districts and to promote the buying by the public in their own communities" (July 5, 1935).
Whatever its commercial impact, the Pow Wow was a hit with the community. An estimated 15,000 people attended the party in 1936. A bathing beauty contest was added to the lineup then, along with a bicycle race around Bailey Peninsula (site of Seward Park), a softball game, and a husband-calling contest. All four became Pow Wow fixtures. A "Nag Derby," with business-suited civic leaders trying to race bareback on horses at least 10 years old, did not.
Mr. Pow Wow
In 1940, John L. O’Brien (1911-2007), an accountant and then-freshman legislator, began a 52-year stint as general chairman of the Pow Wow. Born and raised in the Rainier Valley, O’Brien -- a self-described "New Deal Democrat" -- had been appointed to represent the 37th District in the state House of Representatives after the incumbent died in 1939. He went on to become one of the longest-serving legislators in state history, winning election after election until 1992, when redistricting put him in a losing race against another incumbent. His tenure in the House included four terms as Speaker and coincided almost to the year with his service as Pow Wow impresario.
O’Brien soon put his stamp on what had become the South End’s signature summer festival. He added a queen contest, initially open to girls age 15 to 18 (the upper age limit was raised to 21 in 1949); brought in fireworks by the nationally known Hitt Fireworks Company, which had a manufacturing plant near Columbia City; and eventually expanded the Pow Wow from one day to two to accommodate an increasingly crowded program. Events were spread out all over the 300-acre Seward Park, from the bathing beach to the sports field to a performance platform erected in front of the torii gateway on the north side of the entrance circle. (The imposing, 25-foot-tall gateway, modeled after the famous O-Torri or “grand gate” in Miyajima, Japan, welcomed visitors to Seward Park from 1934 until the mid-1980s.)
To help pay expenses, O’Brien became a tireless fundraiser, appealing for contributions from merchants doing any kind of business in the Rainier Valley. His meticulous records, now held by the Rainier Valley Historical Society, show the results of his efforts: $773.50 collected in 1944, for example; $1,733.55 in 1956, mostly in amounts of $25 to $50. The donations were augmented by the Pow Wow’s share of receipts from the operation of a merry-go-round and later by the sale of Seafair "Skipper" pins.
O’Brien also proved skillful in recruiting help from volunteers. He steadily expanded the number of Pow Wow committees, to the point that there was a separate committee for virtually every attraction at Pow Wow, from the swim meet to the pie-eating contest. There was even a "Chief Yellow Lark Committee," consisting of one man responsible for seeing that the supposed Sioux chief (whose real name turned out to be J. L. Lampkin) showed up every year with his teepee, war bonnet, and "Indian tales." In 1951, 92 people served on various committees, including 24 on finance alone.
"Vim for Victory"
Throughout its history, Pow Wow reflected the interests and concerns of the community that created it. In 1942, during the first Pow Wow to be held after the U.S. entered World War II, the focus was on the war. The printed program was stamped with a big red "V" for victory. The top right hand corner carried an exhortation to "Buy War Bonds." For the first, and only, time, the program included a personal message from O’Brien: "I hope the Pow Wow will serve as a relaxation as well as entertainment for the men in the armed forces, the men and women working in defense plants, our Rainier District neighbors and their friends who are striving for the same goal -- Victory."
Among the scheduled activities were a "Vim for Victory" hike around the park; demonstrations of first aid techniques, and speeches about the role of air raid wardens and the value of war bonds. The program for the next few years included "Events for Servicemen" at the sports field; "Army and Navy" presentations on the main platform in the afternoons; and "sailor-kissing," with Pow Wow queens and princesses bestowing kisses on sailors from the Seattle Naval Hospital.
After the war, the theme was domesticity. There were contests to find the most beautiful baby and the largest family, in addition to the husband-calling, bathing beauty, and queen contests. The 1950 Pow Wow – staged as the culmination of Seattle’s first Seafair celebration -- drew a record crowd of more than 30,000. It began at 11:30 a.m. with an all-city swim meet and ended with a huge display of Hitt’s fireworks, set off from a barge anchored off the tip of Bailey Peninsula. In between was a full panoply of activities aimed at families: drill teams, horseshoe pitching, baton twirling, pie eating, clowns, magicians, picnic races.
The 11:30 start time was a minor concession to L. Myron Lindblom, pastor of the Bethlehem Lutheran Church, who had protested that the traditional opening hour (11 a.m.) interfered with church services. "I wish to assure you that this community undertaking has our heartiest moral support in its effort to publicize our end of town and promote neighborliness and good will," he wrote in a letter to the organizers. However, the start time "cuts into the worship hour of many of our community residents. This, we hold, is of primary importance and works against the best interests of the community as well as being an offense to God" (Lindblom to Rainier Business Men’s Club, May 11, 1949).
Lindblom suggested that the Pow Wow be stretched out over two days, a Saturday and a Sunday, with Sunday activities beginning no earlier than 1 p.m. O’Brien experimented with a weekend schedule from 1953 to 1955 but switched back to the usual single Sunday in 1956. From 1961 through the 1970s, the event was held on two consecutive Sundays, beginning at 11 a.m. on the first and 6:30 p.m. on the second. In the 1980s, it returned to a single Sunday, starting at 11 a.m.
"Nothing Like It"
Social changes in the postwar era also left their mark on the Pow Wow. "Chief" Yellow Lark, who had once inspired such headlines as "Ugh! Him Like Hot Dog" (Seattle Star, 1946), made his last appearance in 1955. The "Indian division of the program" began to take on a more authentic tone (Steen to O’Brien, 1957). A group of Makah from Neah Bay demonstrated traditional drumming and dancing at several Pow Wows, followed in the mid-1960s by the Lummi Indian Redwing Dance Group from Bellingham.
In 1965, the Pow Wow’s opening ceremonies included a release of "doves of peace," a reflection of growing opposition to the Vietnam War. In a nod to youth culture, a "Battle of the Bands -- Rock & Roll" was held on the main stage in the afternoon. By the time of the final Pow Wow, in 1991, O’Brien was the "chairperson," not the "chairman." The Pow Wow queens and princesses were gone, along with the bathing beauty, husband calling, beautiful baby, largest family, and baton twirling contests. The one-day program included performances by two dance groups from Rainier Beach High School, along with a lipsynching competition for kids and a karaoke machine for anyone brave enough to try it.
The 59th Annual Rainier District Pow Wow was held on July 26, 1992, a warm (79 degrees), sunny day at Seward Park. It was sponsored by the Rainier Chamber of Commerce, successor to the Businessmen’s Club. John O’Brien was there, as much a part of the scene as the sack races, the egg toss, the pie-eating contest, the bicycle drawing, and the fireworks. "This is our way of letting the rest of the city know we're alive and vibrant,'' O’Brien had commented, during the 1990 Pow Wow. "It’s simply good for our district." Attendance had dwindled by then but there were still hundreds of regulars, including Columbia City resident James Davis, who said he tried to make it to the Pow Wow every year. "It's a beautiful place to be, plus I get to sit under a tree and watch the children grow up from year to year," he said. "There's nothing like it" (The Seattle Times, 1990).