A powwow is a noisy, sometimes exhausting thing, with continuous dancing, drumming and singing, morning to night. But when Troy “Good Medicine” De Roche steps up to the mic to play one of his handmade flutes, everything relaxes. The music drifts in time with the lazy river, and Troy drifts with it, losing himself in the song. “A lotta times I’ll start playing a song,” he says, “but I’m not really playing it. It’s like the flute is playing itself. That’s when the pure music comes on.” You know how pure it is when the only other sound among a crowd of three hundred is the wind in the palms.
Troy and Liz De Roche are the backbone of the Hilo powwow and two of the strongest threads holding the loose-knit community of Big Island Indians together. Troy, a Blackfeet from Montana, and Liz, a Métis from Washington state, started coming to Hawai‘i for the O‘ahu powwow (now at thirty-five years, the state’s longest running) and for the one in Waimea, on the Big Island. They stayed in part because as native people they felt more at ease in multicultural Hawai‘i than they did on the Mainland.
When the Waimea powwow ended in 2004 after ten years, Troy and Liz stepped in to fill the need. “Most of these people don’t get a chance to go back to their home reservation,” Liz says. “This gathering is the only connection they have to home.” So Troy and Liz felt it was important to host as traditional a powwow as possible, one where participants could experience “real Native American culture,” says Liz, without the kitsch that characterizes some powwows. “This is the kind of powwow that you see in the Mainland,” Troy says, “like a small town back in Montana. It’s a hometown powwow.”
Which is not to say it’s completely kitsch-free: There are toy bows and arrows, dream catchers strung with nylon, T-shirts reading “I got lei’d at the PowWow in Hilo.” But when the drum is throbbing and the dancers are whirling through the circle, when the clear notes of Troy’s flute sing through the afternoon silence, the question of authenticity is moot.