Powwow showcases the diversity of Native American creativity

by Betty Kim and Daniela Armas | 5/15/18 2:20am

by Michael Lin and Michael Lin / The Dartmouth

The weather cleared up just in time for the 2018 Dartmouth Powwow to take place on the Green, putting the celebration of Native American arts and culture front and center on campus. This year’s powwow brought a diverse array of Native American creativity to Hanover, representing singers, drummers, dancers and artisans from communities across the United States.

The powwow committee increased the size of its budget this year, allowing more drummers and dancers to compete and perform than at previous powwows. Committee co-chair Evan Barton ’20 said investing in the drum and dance prizes not only brings more competitors to the powwow, but also draws more spectators to the event, resulting in a more accurate representation of native communities.

“There’s over 200 native-identifying students representing over 75 tribes [at Dartmouth] ... No other Ivy League school can top that number,” Barton said. “Obviously we have the commitment to the charter, and I think [powwow] is the way that’s being actualized. Every year we can build on that is a better year.”

This year’s powwow brought five competing groups to the arena, which was new for the powwow, Barton said. The host drum group, White Bull, traveled from Wyoming to participate. Also present was a drum group representing the Abenaki, a local tribe with significant numbers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Head staff member Shelby Snyder ’21, a Fancy Shawl dancer, grew up attending powwows and traveled across the U.S. and Canada with her family to participate in them.

“Powwow is an intertribal activity and ceremony, a social gathering where we celebrate being who we are as indigenous people,” Snyder said. “When you dance, you dance for people who can’t dance, you dance for people who have passed on, you dance for your ancestors, you dance for future generations and you dance for those who are sick.”

Drum groups come in two distinct styles. Northern drums are higher pitched and faster in beat, while southern drum groups sing deeper and sometimes slower songs. Both types of groups were present at the powwow.

“[Powwow songs] may sound similar to people who aren’t familiar with them, but they’re usually all very different and they’re in different languages,” Snyder said. “There’s powwow songs in Cree, Ojibwe, in Navajo … so depending on where you are, or where the drum groups are from, you’ll hear different kinds of songs.”

Various styles of Native American dance were also represented. The Dartmouth Powwow highlights the men’s Eastern War Dance and women’s Eastern Blanket Dance because they are commonly performed by many northeastern tribes, Barton said. Other styles featured at the powwow included Traditional, Fancy, Jingle Dress and Grass.

Snyder is a Fancy Shawl dancer, the newest style represented at the powwow. The Fancy Shawl dance originated from Native women who wanted to dance like men’s Fancy dancers and has transformed into a tribute to the butterfly, she said. While dancers usually incorporate a number of key moves into their routines, specific movements are usually not choreographed before each performance.

“For the most part, you have moves that you know and you do a lot and are kind of consistent in that way, but it’s more like improv — you know the moves, and depending on what song you get, you just dance,” Snyder said.

Powwow dance specials — specific dance contests organized by members of the head staff — are an exception to the improvisational style. Because being a member of powwow head staff is seen as an honor, members reciprocate that honor and give back to the circle with a special pre-coordinated routine.

At this year’s powwow, dancer Darshina Yazzie ’19 put on a special for all the Jingle Dress dancers. Special dances usually function as a separate contest of sorts, involving performances complete with matching outfits and dances coordinated to a powwow song.

To an extent, the powwow movement has become pan-Indian, Barton said, meaning many tribes adopt traditions and practices from other tribes. Jingle Dress is traditionally Ojibwe, for example, but Yazzie is a member of the Navajo tribe.

Powwow staff member Arviso Alvord ’20, who sold their beadwork as a vendor at the powwow, said that Native American jewelry is another art form that grew out of the pan-Indian tradition. According to Alvord, Pan-Indianism was partly a result of the efforts of Native Americans who attempted to revive Native arts and culture by coming together as survivors of Native American boarding schools in the United States and Canada. Up through the 20th century, many Native American children were forcibly removed from their families to be “educated” at Native American boarding schools, which operated under the goal of "assimilating" them.

Though the powwow represents the celebration of survival against the odds of genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples inscribed in the history of American education, issues still remain. Several powwow staff members reflected on their current concerns surrounding the powwow as an institutionally supported event: its success depends largely on student labor without enough institutional financial support.

“It’s great that we hold the powwow, but the school uses the image of the powwow to exploit the image of the Native American college,” Alvord said. “But in reality, they grossly underfunded the Native American Program budget, and the only income that we get from this is our t-shirt and food sales.”

Barton agreed that he would like to see the College provide more institutional support for the powwow so the event will continue to grow in the future.

“We get donations from the College and then we have to pay the College for certain things, so it’s this transfer of money that seems sort of monotonous,” he said. “They give us money and we give it right back, so it would just be nice if what we could do is invest into the dancers and the drum groups.”

Breanna Sheehan ’20, who worked alongside Barton as co-chair, said she hopes that the powwow can receive a bigger budget and more recognition for the work that Native American students do on campus. The committee is building on the minimum budget that they are currently working with, she said.

“We’ve been trying to work with the administration to grant a bigger budget,” she said. “We’ve worked on a really small budget for the amount of publicity and foot traffic that it gets, and for the amount that Dartmouth uses the Native community to market itself.”

Increasing the powwow budget has been a continual struggle for the staff, but students have also been working to make more immediate changes. While organizing last year’s powwow, co-chairs Shelbi Fitzpatrick ’19 and Anna Reed ’19 helped secure the position of a two-spirit head dancer in addition to the head woman and head man dancer.

“This year and last year, we have a two-spirit dancer that represents a part of the LGBTQ community that I would like to highlight,” Barton said. “Two-spirit is the physical embodiment of the male and female gender in one, and historically it’s meant to bring harmony to a group of people in a tribe. There’s a lot of gender-based violence, and I think that the two-spirit community really highlights how you can fix that.”

Barton and Sheehan want to solidify the two-spirit position at the powwow.

“Having a first head dancer was one step toward [inclusivity] and better representing that,” Sheehan said. “That’s something that I really hope will continue, and throughout my time at Dartmouth, I will continue to push for that and I think it will become a staple as we move forward.”

Correction Appended (May 16, 2018): This article was updated to clarify that Native American boarding schools were not necessarily Christian boarding schools, though most had an element of forced Christian assimilation.