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Dance for Mother Earth Powwow moves off-campus

Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 5, 2009

Native American songs sounded through the halls, dancing pounded the gym floor and the smell of traditional foods wafted through the air at Saline Middle School this weekend.

These were usually the sights and sounds of Crisler Arena during a weekend in the beginning of April. But for the first time in the past 19 years, the annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow was held at a new location. In its 37th year, the powwow left its stadium setting for the fieldhouse at Saline Middle School in an effort to reduce the University’s involvement with the powwow and as a statement against the University’s continued possession of Native American artifacts.

The move follows more than a year of controversy about the University’s continued possession of more than 1,900 remains and artifacts housed in the Museum of Anthropology that the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe claims belong to the tribe. Last March, members of the tribe appeared before the University Board of Regents to request the artifacts be returned.

Since then, the University has refused to return the relics, claiming they are “culturally unidentifiable” and returning them would violate federal law. According to the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums must retain possession of Native American artifacts if they cannot be identified with a specific tribe.

In part because of the University’s handling of this issue and in part to reduce the University’s involvement with the powwow, the Native American Student Association decided last month to move the yearly powwow away from University property this year.

In an interview with the Daily last month, NASA Co-chair Conner Sandefur said the move took place because NASA had a desire to shift the powwow’s management away from the University’s Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and back to the Native American community.

“We are taking back our central control of the powwow to honor our community,” he told the Daily in early March. “One of the great things that have happened this year is we have been able to connect with the greater community. Native American students get to meet elders who feel comfortable coming because it’s not within the confinements of the University setting.”

Sandefur, a Rackham student, said the group had difficulty finding a venue in Ann Arbor after it made the decision to switch locations.

“Most places you call, and they won’t call you back when you talk about a powwow,” he said.

After much searching, Sandefur said the Community Education Department of the Saline Area School District was one of the few groups that agreed to house the powwow.

“They just welcomed us with open arms, which is a different experience than we’ve had at the University,” he said.

Though this was the first time in 19 years that the powwow was not at Crisler Arena, American Culture Lecturer Margaret Noori, who teaches Ojibwe at the University, said many of the participants preferred the new location.

“There was a nice feeling of closeness,” she said, “and families who were venders were able to watch their kids who were dancers.”

In light of the fact that the powwow was held seven miles from campus and in a smaller venue, Sandefur said he was satisfied with the estimated turnout of thousands of people, even though attendance was lower than in past years.

Noori, who attended the event with her family, said there were more than enough people to compete in the dance competitions, adding “there’s a certain measure of success that is beyond numbers.”

“I certainly felt that we had the numbers of people you need to have a successful powwow,” she said.

In addition to the dancing competition and traditional festivities, this year’s powwow commemorated the death of Irving “Hap” McCue, the founder of the first powwow held at the University in 1972.