Centuries ago, Native Americans cleared open fields of grass to
hold a pow wow. At Saturday’s Ann Arbor Dance for Mother
Earth Pow Wow, Native American dancers continued the same
tradition, opening the weekend’s event through a Grass Dance,
symbolizing the clearing of the grass so many years before.

Mira Levitan
A Native American performer dressed in traditional attire attends the Pow Wow Saturday in Crisler Arena. The annual event drew more than 1,000 audience members and performers. (EUGENE ROBERTSON/Daily)

Open fields of prairie used to stretch across the land when the
first pow wows were held, Native American dancer Ronny Preston
said.

During the year, the prairie grass would grow tall. Whenever the
tribes living in these lands needed a meeting place, the elders
would send out the young men to clear the fields by stomping down
the grass.

As the young men stomped on the grass, the elders noticed how
beautiful their motions were. So the tribe made a dance out of it
now called the Grass Dance.

Dressed in traditional Native American clothing, Preston and
hundreds of Native Americans from tribes all over North America
joined Ann Arbor residents in this year’s Pow Wow for fun and
to immerse themselves in Native American culture.

The 32nd annual Pow Wow was held over the course of the weekend
at Crisler Arena and sponsored by the University.

Pow wows, dancer Jody Gaskin said, are meant to gather the
community together, allowing them to socialize and meet new
friends. This particular Pow Wow was also a dance and drum
competition where performers were judged by their group’s
routine.

But the pow wow also serves an equally important purpose of
providing the Native American community time to express their
long-standing traditions.

With thousands of yellow and red beads spread across his
clothing, decorating the pattern of shapes and symbols on his garb,
Preston said he made his dance wear over the winter from the
knowledge passed down through his family.

“My mother taught me how to bead when I was real small. I
never forgot it,” he said.

Gaskin said he learned Native American dance when he was five
and now teaches his children the same dances.

“I’ve taught my kids and then they’ll teach
their kids,” he added.

Gaskin said this Pow Wow also serves a larger purpose of
bringing the Ann Arbor community “to see what the beauty and
the variety of our own Native American culture has to offer.

“(The pow wow), it’s a social event, but it’s
also spiritual. For Native Americans, our spirituality goes through
everything. To be social is to be spiritual,” he said.

Wearing a breastplate fashioned out of hollowed bones, with a
ring of eagle feathers strapped around his waist, Gaskin and others
swayed their bodies to the banging of the drums throughout the
afternoon’s first dances, rhythmically tapping Crisler
Arena’s floor with their feet.

Other dances featured during the Pow Wow ranged from traditional
dancing based on the movements of animals to more contemporary
routines called fancy dancing, Gaskin said. Young boys and girls
also participated in the dances.

Over the years, the Pow Wow has become increasingly popular to
the University and the Native American community, said George
Martin, who attended the first Pow Wow 32 years ago. Martin was
invited to be the Pow Wow’s head veteran, who is the
traditional leader of the opening ceremony.

“We had one dancer 32 years ago. Now we have over 150. We
used to have one drummer, but now we have so many,” he
said.

Still, even with its growing size, some think there needs to be
more acknowledgment of Michigan’s Native American
community.

Education senior Erin Crain said of the event, “I enjoy
watching the dances. It’s something different.”

But she added that more students should have come to the Pow
Wow. “I would say that not many people know this is going on.
There doesn’t seem to be a large awareness of the Native
American community.”

That’ why it’s so important to hold cultural events
like the weekend’s Pow Wow, Martin said.

“(We want to show everyone) that we’re here, that
there are Native Americans here,” he said.

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