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.
Besides starting the powwow in Ann Arbor, McCue also taught Ojibwe at the University for more than 30 years.
While McCue passed away in 2008, Noori said it is Native American custom to honor the death of a loved one a year later.
“It’s easy to remember them a week after it happens,” she said. “It’s a more significant thing to remember them a year later.”
During Saturday’s festivities, many University faculty and staff joined McCue’s 26 relatives on the dance floor to perform a memorial dance in his honor.
In addition to the memorial dance, participants of all ages, wearing brightly colored headdresses, feathers and beads, showcased their dancing skills in the various dance competitions held throughout the day.
At the end of the powwow, dancers who earned the most points received cash prizes.
As groups competed in the center of the gymnasium, Native American vendors — some driving more than 10 hours to get to the event — packed the surrounding indoor track to sell their goods, including beaded jewelry, dream catchers, moccasins and drums.
LSA freshman Lisa Letourneau, a member of NASA, said the event went smoothly because the Native American community supported the move.
“It’s just kind of bringing it a little closer to how things used to be,” Letourneau said. “Maybe taking away the flashy aspect of powwow and making it more natural and just more of a celebration instead of a competition.”
Despite the festive atmosphere, attendees of this year’s powwow noted the continuing tensions with the University were in the back of their minds.
Dearborn resident Glen Qualls, who has attended the annual event nine times, said this year’s powwow was a very intimate occasion in the new location. However, Qualls added he was upset because the change came in light of an “underlying animosity from people at the University of Michigan.”
“It’s indicative that there’s a great healing that’s needed with the issue of the respect of the remains that the University has chosen to disregard,” he said.
Karen Pheasant, a dancer who has come to the powwow for the past three years, drove nine hours to attend the occasion and said that, in years past, holding the event at Crisler Arena signified the University’s acceptance of the Native American community.
She said this year’s change was “a great loss,” signifying the broken relationship between the University and the Native American community.
University alum Susan Hill drove from Ontario to attend the event. She said she has been coming to the powwow since she was a freshman 19 years ago.
Hill said she originally participated as a dancer, but now she returns each year as a volunteer.
“It’s sort of like the native students’ homecoming,” she said. “We get to see people we went to school with who are now all over the country.”
Hill said she supports the move because NASA made the decision with the Native American community’s opinion in mind.
While the event went smoothly in its new location, Noori said she hopes the controversy over the University’s possession of the relics will be resolved soon.
“We remain really hopeful that the University, through continued awareness, will make a decision to return the remains,” she said.