Dance for Mother Earth Powwow builds community amid Native American remains repatriation process

Mia Marino/Daily
Native Americans from across the United States and Canada perform intertribal songs and traditional drumming at the 38th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow at Saline Middle School on Saturday, April 10, 2010. Buy this photo

Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 11, 2010

When visitors entered Saline Middle School’s auditorium this weekend, a sea of brightly colored headdresses, jewelry and regalia immediately demanded their attention.

Looking closer, certain individuals in the crowded arena stood out: an aged man sewing a leather sack, young children stomping their feet in rhythm alongside their elders and three young men beating skinned drums and chanting enthusiastically.

These participants and more were among the hundreds of participants at the 38th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow who came together this weekend to celebrate their culture with fellow members of the Native American community.

“(The powwow) is about building community and respecting our culture, history and traditions,” LSA senior Josh Voss, the internal co-chair of the University’s Native American Student Association said.

Hosted by NASA, the event spanned two days and offered Native American music and dancing, as well as an array of vendors selling traditional clothing and memorabilia like sculptures, drums and beaded necklaces. Dancers also competed in contests and showcased their skills in exhibitions.

During Grand Entry ceremonies held Saturday and Sunday, powwow participants gathered in the auditorium to collaborate in song and dance under the direction of Head Dancers and a Head Veteran — three chosen participants who are responsible for overseeing the powwow. Completion of each Grand Entry marked the beginning of a new powwow session.

Though the event has been hosted at the University’s Crisler Arena in the past, last year marked the first time NASA used Saline Middle School as the event’s venue.

The decision to use the middle school’s facilities again this year is part of an ongoing “protest” by the Native American community against the University, according to a press release for the event.

According to the release, because the University houses culturally unidentifiable Native American human remains in its Museum of Anthropology, NASA sought an off-campus venue for the second year in a row.

Rackham student Veronica Pasfield, the publicity coordinator for the powwow’s planning committee, said there has recently been “substantive progress” made by the University to repatriate the Native American human remains to tribes.

Last month, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act amended a policy that will now require museums to return any “culturally unidentifiable” Native American remains to their tribes of origin.

In response, the University has started to formulate a process to determine how to transfer nearly 1,400 remains from the University’s Museum of Anthropology to Native American tribes by the time the ruling takes effect in mid-May.

Pasfield said the University’s refusal to repatriate these remains in the past has always been one of the many factors considered when selecting the powwow’s venue. She said tension between the University’s Office of Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs and NASA concerning event management was the primary complication when determining a suitable venue.

According to the press release, the powwow had become the University’s “diversity showcase,” which contributed to the decision to host the powwow off-campus for the first time last year and shift responsibility for planning the powwow from MESA to NASA.

Pasfield said, though, that despite the tension between the two groups, they are “making progress” and moving in the right direction.

When asked if the powwow will be back on campus next year, Pasfield couldn’t provide a definite answer, but she said she is hopeful that issues keeping the powwow off-campus will be resolved soon.

LSA sophomore Alys Alley, the external co-chair of NASA, wrote in an e-mail interview that the Native American community will later decide where the powwow will be held next year.

Though Crisler Arena is larger in size than Saline Middle School, Pasfield said she was pleased with the event’s turnout this year, in which members of Native American tribes from all across the country came to participate.

“There was an unbelievable turnout,” Pasfield said, adding that more dancers participated in the powwow than last year.

According to Voss, more than 260 dancers attended this year — nearly 50 more than last year. George Martin, head veteran dancer of the weekend, has been participating in the powwow since its debut in 1972. He said dancers at the event range from young children to veterans like him, adding that the children learn the dances by watching the older dancers and mimicking them.

“The dancing just comes naturally,” Martin said.

Voss, who is graduating next month, said organizing and participating in the powwow each year has been “the best thing” he has done at the University.

“You never foresee how amazing it’s going to be,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to step back and smile.”