Denver American Indian Festival attracts thousands with goal of keeping culture, tradition alive

The Denver-made soaps for sale at one of the tables at the 8th annual Denver American Indian Festival were infused with essential oils and scents like powwow dirt, tipi campfire and sweetgrass soap — ingredients sourced from Native and Indigenous people across the U.S. for Colorado’s first Native American soap company.

Lakota Body Care owners connected with other American Indian people at the festival Saturday and Sunday, and also educated those who were willing to listen. The event at Riverdale Regional Park and Fairgrounds in Adams County included traditional American Indian dances, musical performances and food. Vendors sold artwork, jewelry and other handmade products, while other booths provided historical information and resources.

“Because of colonization and the genocide of our ancestors, that is the reason we work hard and keep our culture and tradition alive, to take up space in this land that was supposed to be ours,” co-owner Akalei Brown said. “People think we don’t exist anymore.”

Brown, who is of Taos Pueblo and Kanaka-Maoil (Native Hawaiian) heritage, runs the business with her husband and 9-year-old daughter. It was the young girl’s idea to start making the soaps.

“I do it for everybody, for the family, to feel strong and proud,” Haleakala Brown said of the work she does with her parents.

Akalei Brown said she is one generation removed from Indian boarding schools — where the U.S. government forcibly took Native children from their homes to these schools to “assimilate” them.

Her parents took them to powwows and rodeos, but she wanted to ensure that more of their culture survived and was passed down to other generations.

It’s the same generational pull that led Darius Charley to learn more about his Diné (Navajo) ancestors after high school.

His father’s own work influenced Charley’s traditional Native American cradleboards, into which he incorporates Navajo design themes, and he tries to use all of the materials and exotic wood by making them into jewelry so nothing goes to waste.

Charley traveled from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to participate in the Denver festival.

“If you don’t keep up with (your culture), you lose it,” Charley said. “You lose your sense of self, where you come from.”

The festival also had tables set up for groups that provide assistance for Native people with housing, navigating the foster care system and calling attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women.

The nonprofit Denver Indian Family Resource Center handed out pamphlets about upcoming events and encouraged Native families to fill out a survey about housing to learn more about the need. They also shared information about the child welfare system, which they said disproportionately affects Native children.

“Some of it is attributed to historical generational trauma,” said Alyssa Willie, a family engagement specialist. “Denver is a relocation state, so a lot of families from the ’50s have moved back and forth from reservations to here, so there’s some of those families that may not have the resources.”

The event attracted about 3,500 people on Saturday and another 2,500 on Sunday, making it the largest one so far, organizer Carolyn Hayes said.

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