May 19th, 2015 Last Updated on: January 19th, 2022
During the Stanford Powwow on May 9th 2015, Tom Phillips took precious time from his dinner break to sit with me and discuss what it means to him to be a Powwow MC, and how he came to this arena of his life.
Me: I wanted to ask you what made you decide to pursue becoming an MC?
Tom Phillips: Years ago right around the Alcatraz occupation, I decided that I would try to divert some of my efforts towards the Indian movement. I was a Merchant Marine while the Students occupied the Island back in 1969, and that got me thinking, I grew up in a Native community in Oklahoma so I knew there were struggles, and I knew there was racism and discrimination and the treatment of our people was always a concern of mine. I wanted to do what I could to turn that around, and bring more positive energy to our culture.
Me: Can you tell me a little about your history, where you work and how your life as an MC began?
Tom Phillips: I began working in the San Francisco Friendship House for the Association of American Indians, it was a family center, but it also had a halfway house and substance abuse treatment for men and women. I worked there because a few of my shipmates were working there, and I really liked that it had a purpose, and a mission and it was helping people. I come from a family of helpers and teachers. My mother was a school teacher and most of my siblings are teachers. I taught as well. My Step-Father was a Methodist minister in Oklahoma, so I came from helpers. It was a natural transition for me to go into human services and I worked at the Friendship house as a Social Service Coordinator and Recreations Coordinator. I got to work with families and their children. After that I was the Executive Director of the SF American Indian Center for a year and a hall and during that time was my first introduction to MCing. We had a Fun Center at that time and on the adjacent lot there was a sand lot and there was a flat bed trailer with a mic set up, and so the MC we had for the program didn’t show up, but the people there knew that I knew the culture and worked at the Indian Center so asked “Can you help us? Our MC didn’t show up.” So typical to many of our MCs that’s how they got their start…somebody not showing up. So thats how I got my start, on that flat bed trailer. Ever since then I’ve been asked to announce and MC and do Powwows in San Jose, Oakland etc. I’ve been announcing now for over 45 years now.
Me: What do you enjoy most about being an MC?
Tom Phillips: Well you know it’s not about the pay, or the prestige or honor if there is such a thing with this.. I just love being with the people and having them educated to our culture and protocols. That was missing in a lot of our culture, they think of Hollywood and this or that, but we who grew up in our culture know the real Native values and our culture and our Dances. Thats what aided me, I lived in that era of revival and renewal of our culture and the Gourd Dance.
Me: Where are some of the places that you have announced?
Tom Phillips: I’ve announced at Denver March Powwow, Rocky Boy, Coushatta Powwow in Louisiana, Gathering of Nations- Gourd Dance Sessions, Red Earth Oklahoma City, Ft. Hall Shoshone Bannock Festival, Barona Reservation, Soboba Gathering and Morongo Thunder and Lightening Powwows. I’ve mostly announced here in CA, but this June I will be announcing in Washington for the first time. Muckleshoot Veteran’s Powwow in Auburn.
Tom Phillips grew up in a small community of Apache Y Oklahoma, and is retired from Teaching at California State University Stanislaus as of June last year. He recently turned 71, and is enjoying retirement with volunteer work, and continuing to bring knowledge and education of Native cultures through his work as a Powwow MC.
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