You can't attend the annual Winnebago Indian Powwow without being touched by all the colors — and not just the traditional, bright-hued regalia of feathers and beadwork.
What's always striking is the prominence of those other colors — the red, white and blue.
It's almost counterintuitive: an Indian tribe, with American flags flying all around the outdoor arena. Given the U.S. government's historical mistreatment of tribes in the development of the West, you might think that patriotism would be muted on the reservation.
“We love the country as much as the president,” said Darwin Snyder, 45, vice chairman of the tribal council. “It's hard to explain sometimes, with the way we were treated back in the day. But this event is very special to all our Winnebago people.”
The 77 flags flying in the arena Sunday were raised solemnly at 6 a.m., as happened on each of the powwow's four days. Each flag flies in memory of a military veteran who has died.
Last weekend marked the 146th annual powwow and “homecoming celebration” on the reservation about 80 miles north of downtown Omaha. Prize money for dance competitions attracted people from other states and other tribes — Lakota, Paiute, Ponca, Navajo, Omaha and many more.
One woman wore a red Nebraska “N” on the front of her traditional costume. Speaking of the Cornhuskers, the tribal vice chairman once received a full-ride football scholarship to play for Nebraska.
At Winnebago High School in the mid-1980s, Snyder had rushed for more than 5,000 yards, averaging 10 yards a carry. He once scored 40 points in a game.
But a World-Herald article in the spring of 1987 said he had quit the Nebraska team because of recurring headaches.
“Football was my life,” he said outside the arena Sunday, the chants and drumbeats continuing in the background. “I left Nebraska after my sophomore year and started working for the tribe.”
A half-hour before our chat, Snyder had taken the microphone to welcome visitors. He mentioned that not long ago, he wasn't sure he'd be around for the powwow.
In May, shortly after attending the state high school track meet in Omaha, he began having severe headaches. He spent seven nights in a hospital, much of it in intensive care.
Snyder said he had a blood clot and a brain infection. It's believed, he said, that the problem is related to head and neck injuries a quarter-century ago. He is fine now, he said, and returned to work three weeks ago.
He and his wife, married 21 years, have three children. He is proud of what the tribe and its economic development arm, Ho-Chunk Inc., have accomplished, including new housing.
To boost academic achievement, ground was broken recently for a $10 million Educare center, the first on an American Indian reservation. The tribal council and the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, run by Omaha philanthropist Susie Buffett, each will contribute $5 million.
At the powwow Sunday afternoon, a stirring “grand entrance” brought colorfully dressed people into the arena, moving to the beat of the drums. American Legion Post 363 posted the nation's colors.
Dance competitions for children and adults followed, with categories such as traditional, jingle, grass and fancy dance. Attendees witnessed the Sneak-up Dance, the Green Corn Dance and Inter-Tribal Dance.
Darwin Snyder — who once dreamed of sports fame but says he is happy to spend his career helping his people — took it all in, as he has all his life. The pageantry and grandeur are moving, but he said people also take seriously the honoring of veterans and the nation.
As the “fancy dancers” competed, he was asked if he ever took part in that category.
“No,” he said wryly. “I did my fancy dancing on the football field.”
Contact the writer: