Correction Appended: An earlier version of this article inaccurately stated where the University holds culturally unidentifiable Native American human remains.
Coordinated dances, colorful regalia, and rhythmic rituals filled a gymnasium adorned with Native American artifacts and artwork and people enjoying traditional food and drink.
The festivities were part of 39th annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow hosted by the University’s chapter of the Native American Student Association. The weekend-long event, which took place at Saline Middle School, drew several hundred attendees and included three main performances by dancers and drummers from across the country and a multitude of vendors selling art, handmade goods and food.
George Martin, the host of the powwow, has been participating in the event each year since its debut in 1972. He said dancers at the event range from young children to veterans like himself.
Rackham student Veronica Pasfield, a senior member of the powwow committee and a member of the Bay Mills Tribe, said in an interview before the event that she enjoys the powwow because of its ability to bring people together.
“To see people from different nations, different tribes and different parts of the country is the most special part …” Pasfield said. “No matter what’s going on at the campus or in life, Native (American) students at the University of Michigan can be counted on to put on this really incredible powwow for the community, bringing people together under a common cause.”
At the event, dancers moved in circles formed around drums Pasfield compared to “the size of a standard dining room table.” She said every movement made during the course of the powwow, including the dancers’ circular motions, is symbolic and representative of a larger cultural theme. The dancer’s circular motions represent the circle of life, a thematic element in Native American culture, Pasfield said. Even the direction from which the dancers entered the circular arena, the east, is derived from the direction in which the sun rises every morning.
Yvonne Moore, a longtime powwow attendee, said the drummers live a life free of alcohol, drugs and adultery because when they play their drums, they pay homage to the Earth and to their cultural roots.
Aside from the artistic displays, two issues arose throughout the course of the event — racism against Native Americans today and the tension that exists between the University and NASA.
Representatives from the Michigan Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media had a table displaying various Native American racial slurs in common products and the media today — like how sports teams frequently use the name “Redskins.” The organization sends memos to school boards and regents of various universities, requesting that the derogatory slogans, mascots and imagery be removed, according to Todd Linder, a member of the organization.
Though the University held the event for many years at Crisler Arena the powwow moved to Saline Middle School three years ago.
Rick Schott, a longtime Mother Earth Powwow security and event coordinator, said one of the reasons for the venue change was due to tensions stemming from the University’s policy of requiring tribes to provide evidence of ownership or affiliation with the artifacts in the University’s Museum of Anthropology in order for them to be returned to the tribes. Following the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was created in 1990 and updated in March 2010, institutions that receive federal funding are required to return Native American artifacts to their original owners.
Schott said the University’s process of requiring proof of affiliation “upsets and saddens” him because he thinks many tribes cannot meet the University’s requirement.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an e-mail interview that the University has a “moratorium” on any research with NAGPRA remains and has contacted tribes affiliated with the objects still in the University’s possession to inform them of their possible claims. While waiting for a response from tribes, Fitzgerald wrote that the University will hold onto the objects in a “ritually appropriate way”.
LSA junior Alys Alley, who is a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and a senior member of the powwow committee, wrote in an e-mail interview that she would “like to see more institutional support from the University for Native (American) students, especially when it comes to recruitment and retention.”
“We are at a critical time where our incoming classes of Native (American0 students are getting smaller and smaller, and I hope that this problem can gain more attention and resources from the University,” Alley wrote.
Despite the politics and change in locations, Martin said the powwow is still a memorable and enriching experience.
“It is one of the greatest days of the year, and something everyone should experience in their life, whether Native American or not,” Martin said. “After 39 years, it is just as special now as it was on day one.”