Powwow at Crisler Center keeps tradition alive

Ruby Wallau/Daily
A young performer dances at the 41st annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at the Crisler Center Saturday. Buy this photo

By Stephanie Shenouda, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 7, 2013

This wasn't LSA sophomore Sarah Ballew’s first powwow. Attending and competing at various powwows since she could walk, Ballew has grown up around the rhythmic drumming and singing of Native American culture.

As internal co-chair of the Native American Student Association, Ballew helped organize the 41st annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, a weekend-long event where Native American artisans and dancers from across the country come to embrace their culture and keep traditions alive. Housed at the Crisler Center, the 2013 event returned to campus after a four-year hiatus.

“At the time, our organization didn’t feel like we could have it on campus for a lot of reasons,” Ballew said. “One of them being the refusal to return burial remains to tribes, we just wanted to take a step back, but now we’re ready to be back.”

Ballew added that having Powwow on campus makes the event more “inclusive” and is an important step for educating students about an intricate culture.

“There’s been some outreach throughout the University, but I think there could be more,” she said. “I don’t think our presence is very known on campus yet.”

The court, which normally sees basketballs and tennis shoes, was covered in order to accommodate the dancing of about 1,000 performers and attendees per day. The Grand Entry, meant to give everyone an opportunity to showcase regalia and talent, was not only a visual spectacle, but also was symbolic of the different tribes coming together. There were also individual drumming and singing competitions throughout the day.

As a culturally active member of the Potawatomi tribe, Ballew explained that the Powwow, which requires a full year of planning, was meant to honor the connection they have with the Earth.

“Native American people have a very strong connection with the Earth and we take care of her,” she said. “We like to honor that connection, so we sing and dance for her.”

Mount Pleasant resident Miigwaans Smith wore a tunic decorated with silver bells and beads of every color, customary for the Powwow dance she performed. Though her tight braids and intricate makeup looked complicated, 14-year-old Smith had so much practice that she can now get ready in about half an hour. She explained that the regalia and headdresses worn by the performers are a great source of pride and are influenced by their personal style, as well as by tribe and name.

Happy with her performance, Smith said powwows, which she has been attending all her life, are a fun way to connect with her Native American heritage.

“I put a lot of work into learning my dances; you just practice whenever you can,” Smith said. “Sometimes I’ll just put powwow music on when I’m in the kitchen and practice.”

LSA freshman Nikila Lakshmanan attended the Powwow because of her interest in different cultures.

“The different ways in which they danced and the intricacy of their costume was really interesting to me,” Lakshmanan said. “You can tell that they dedicate a lot of time into perfecting their craft.”

Lakshmanan said events such as the Powwow are important factors in contributing to the diversity of the University, especially among smaller cultural groups. She added that all minority groups “indirectly benefit” from being exposed to each other’s cultures and traditions.

“It’s really important to have other cultures bringing in what they can contribute to campus, and it’s really illuminating,” Lakshmanan said. “The overall feel was much more inclusive and community-oriented than I expected it to be, but that is a great, new perspective that I’ve seen since attending this event.”