In the weeks leading up to the Big Oakland Powwow, a disparate but interconnected group of urban Native Americans living in Oakland prepare for the festivities, working through the losses and traumas they’ve suffered both in their own lifetimes and through the inheritance of an overwhelmingly painful cultural legacy of violence and racism. Among the attendees of the powwow are the lost and insecure Tony Loneman, a young man whose shame over having a face marked by fetal alcohol syndrome leads to his involvement in a scheme to rob the powwow; Octavio Gomez, a drug dealer and the mastermind behind the scheme; and Dene Oxendene, who’s hoping to honor his recently deceased uncle’s legacy by collecting the stories of other Native Americans living in Oakland for a documentary film. Also present are Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, her half-sister Jacquie Red Feather, and Jacquie’s culturally adrift grandchildren Orvil, Lony, and Loother, who all struggle to understand one another, and the complicated cultural tradition they’re a part of. Interwoven with these central stories are the tales of a number of other individuals who are interconnected in unlikely and amazing ways—though they are often unaware of the deep ties, both cultural and familial, which bind them to one another.
As the powwow nears, Octavio plots with Calvin Johnson, Calvin’s brother Charles, and Charles’s friend Carlos—along with Tony Loneman, who Octavio hopes will take the fall for the crime—about how to steal tens of thousands of dollars in cash prizes from the powwow. Calvin, who is on the powwow committee, provides the group with valuable inside information.
Jacquie, who attends a professional conference in Albuquerque while struggling to maintain an eleven-day sobriety streak, reconnects with Harvey, the father of the child she gave up for adoption long ago, and agrees to travel with him to Oakland to attend the powwow. Meanwhile, Dene Oxendene secures a grant to support his storytelling project, and begins collecting on film the stories of Native Americans living in Oakland. He joins the powwow committee so that he can set up a storytelling booth at the big event, and looks forward to realizing his uncle Lucas’s dream.
Fourteen-year-old Orvil Red Feather, who has taught himself Native dance by watching YouTube videos after a lifetime of being forbidden to learn about “Indianing” by his great-aunt Opal, prepares to enter a dance competition at the powwow with the help of his brothers Loother and Lony—and also discovers, disturbingly and intriguingly, that a lump in his leg seems to be leaking spider’s legs. Meanwhile, Edwin Black joins the powwow committee after securing an internship at the Indian Center in an attempt to temper his internet addiction, reconnect with his Native roots, and perhaps even meet his birth father, Harvey, at the powwow. The adopted-at-birth Blue, another member of the powwow committee, reflects on the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband, Paul—and how far she’s come as a Native community organizer over the years in spite of the cultural isolation which marked her privileged youth.
At the powwow, everyone arrives hoping for a chance to shine, to make some money, and to connect with far-flung or long-lost friends and family. Orvil joins a group of dancers in a Grand Entry showcase, and is reminded of the spiritual power of dance and community when one of the dancers gives a rousing speech. Thomas Frank, the recently fired alcoholic janitor at the Indian Center, is given a chance to redeem himself through music as he participates in a drumming group led by the kindly Bobby Big Medicine. Edwin meets Harvey (his birth father), and Blue recognizes his friend Jacquie as her birth mother, though she’s too shy and shell-shocked to say anything. Elsewhere, Tony Loneman dons traditional regalia and heads to the powwow on a busy BART train, feeling a sense of purpose—however misplaced—for the first time in his life.
Daniel Gonzales, Octavio’s teenage cousin, used his 3-D printer to create several plastic guns and sold them to Octavio—and now plans to watch the robbery unfold by flying his high-tech drone over the coliseum. When the robbery goes bad and Carlos attempts to steal the bounty for himself, the robbers begin exchanging fire. As the shootout grows bloodier and bloodier, several innocent powwow attendees are caught in the crossfire—Orvil and Edwin are wounded, but with the help of their friends and family make it to a nearby hospital, while Calvin, Charles, Thomas, coliseum employee Bill Davis, and Tony Loneman die in the massacre. As Tony lies on the ground dying after putting an end to the shooting by killing Charles, he feels he is at last free from the bodily prison which bound him for years. He hears birds singing overhead as his consciousness dims.