The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) decided to change venues for its second National Powwow, a potentially risky move seeing as the cost of renting the new site would require the museum to charge a fee for the event.
In September 2002, the museum held its first powwow inside a big tent on the National Mall in Washington, DC, where National Park Service rules required the event be free. The inaugural two-day powwow attracted 20,000 visitors, despite hot and humid weather.
For this year's three-day event, held August 12 to 14, the museum moved indoors to the MCI Center, where all of the American Indian dancers, dressed in regalia, would feel more comfortable in the air-conditioned environment.
At most powwows around the country, the overwhelming majority of participants and audiences tend to be American Indians. For the DC powwow, however, the museum included an educational program, called the Origins and Evolution of the Powwow, tailored for people unfamiliar with such gatherings.
"The challenge for us was to bring in a nontraditional audience to this cultural event," says Jim Pepper Henry, NMAI's assistant director for community services. "Because the last event was free, we weren't quite sure what the market was for people to come and actually pay $10 or $12 to get in the door."
Many American Indians travel on a powwow circuit during the summer. Given the competition from other powwows, NMAI wanted to offer them enough time to plan for the event.
"Nine months to a year out, we started doing outreach to Native American communities in the US and Canada," says Leonda Levchuk, public affairs assistant at NMAI and leader of the powwow PR effort.
Meanwhile, NMAI faced the challenge of planning an event while also meeting the needs of the visitors to the new museum, which opened on the Mall in September 2004.
NMAI promoted the event on Powwows.com and in Indian Country Today's quarterly magazine dedicated to powwows. The museum also stationed booths at other powwows to distribute information about the DC gathering.
In addition, NMAI pushed the powwow heavily from Philadelphia to Richmond, VA, placing ads in major newspapers and tourism magazines, as well as in DC Metro subway stations. The museum also did direct mailings to its thousands of members.
"There was quite a bit of word-of-mouth," Pepper Henry says. "There are a lot of native people who live in Washington and work at other agencies and organizations around town. There was a buzz brewing with those folks, as well."
Promotion of the American Indian arts and crafts market associated with the powwow also served as an attraction for visitors, he added.
Total attendance at this year's powwow exceeded 35,000. "We were estimating that we would be happy to have 20,000 to 25,000 people come through the doors during the three-day weekend," Pepper Henry says. "It went way beyond our expectations. In fact, many of our vendors were low on inventory by Saturday evening."
More than 530 dancers participated, and 141 tribal nations were represented. The generous prize money for the competition dancers attracted participants who might have traveled to other powwows happening at the same time, he says.
The campaign also drew the attention of companies, organizations, and individuals who chose to become event sponsors.
The strong attendance "really encouraged us to think about doing it again," Pepper Henry says. Because the event requires considerable work - NMAI took care of the entire PR campaign in-house - the museum plans to hold the powwow only on a biennial basis, with the next one likely to take place in 2007.
PR team: National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC)
Campaign: National Powwow 2005
Time frame: January to August 2005