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Annual USU Powwow is about frybread, dancing—and cultural identity

May 12th, 2014 Posted in Arts and Life

By Noelle Johansen

LOGAN—It’s more than bright feathers, costumes, drumbeats, dancing and the rattle of tin bells when the annual Powwow comes to USU’s Nelson Fieldhouse every year.

Tribes from across the Intermountain West come to USU for the 41st annual Powwow. Photo by Samantha Behl

Tribes from across the West come to USU for the 41st annual Powwow. Photo by Samantha Behl

Beyond the tribal dance spectacle, native American frybread and jewelry, USU’s Powwow—the 41st was this year—is a vehicle to bring native peoples together, and to celebrate their shared history and heritage.

Jason Brough, president of the USU Native American Student Council (NASC), says powwows began in a warrior society with strict rules. The NASC and USU’s Access and Diversity Center sponsored the 2014 Powwow, its 41st.

“You have to show that you are worthy to get in and do those types of dances,” Brough said. Confinement of Native Americans to reservations changed the purpose of powwows.

“The plains Indians said we need to have some way we can come together,” he said. “Have a good time, start forgetting all the sadness: the loss of loved ones, the loss of freedom. And so the powwows kind of became this place where everybody could just come to get together and have a good time.”

Dancers of all ages participate. Senior Bryan Armajo, a business management information systems major at USU’s regional Tooele campus, traveled to Logan to dance in his first USU Powwow. He started dancing in powwows as a toddler, and has since competed across the country.

Armajo said his favorite parts of powwow are the “food and people and dancing.” For him, the powwows are like family reunions.

“I get to meet my family, basically,” Armajo said. His aunts, uncles and cousins from Wyoming and Idaho meet at the powwows. “I see all my relatives … and enjoy their company. I get to see all my friends that I’ve met over the years ever since I was dancing as a little kid.”

Dancers and drummers come from all over, but it’s the local volunteers who help USU’s Powwow run smoothly.

“The students that come and volunteer, it’s a great opportunity for them,” Brough said. “A lot of times we get the anthropology majors who want to come and check it out because that’s what they’re studying, but then we get the random students who come in as well.

“For me personally, I love it because we get people who don’t know the culture, who have never seen these types of things before, especially here in Utah where it’s predominantly Anglo-Saxon and the LDS religion,” he said.

Native American Student Council secretary Alicia Olea was in charge of organizing the volunteer force at this year’s Powwow. She says the volunteers gain much from the experience.

“I believe that they come out with a better understanding of native culture,” Olea said. “[They] enjoy the music, the food, the dance and have this great cultural experience that they may or may not have had before.”

Olea said she enjoys working with and getting to know the volunteers, but her favorite part of Powwow is the children’s dance competition.

“They just get up there and they dance,” Olea said. “No matter if they know how to or not, they just dance. And that is the most important thing because our kids, our youth are our leaders, they will be our leaders and so we need to instill this sense of this identity and their own culture into them.”

Brough agreed that powwows help teach new generations the importance of Native American traditions.

“I’ve had some elementary kids ask us, ‘Are Indians still alive?’” Brough said. “It’s great for people to show that we’re still here, we’re still strong, we have our culture, we’re going to keep going on as long as we continue to respect our elders, continue to honor the traditions and the promises that Creator made to us.”

“If we can get our kids, our native youth, going back to who they are, learning who they are as American Indians, you know, and start practicing their traditions, start learning them, they’ll realize—the drugs and the alcohol and all those things, that’s poison, we don’t need them,” Brough said.

“They’ll come back to these arenas where they can feel the drumbeat, they can have that healing take place.”

Many come back every year. The Powwow is one of the largest events on the USU campus, second only to the Howl. Brough said funding the event is difficult and the council depends mostly on donations and frybread sales to cover costs.

“These events are very important,” Brough said, “regardless [of whether] we make a profit. In past years, we went into debt doing this, but it’s worth it. It’s worth it for the people. For me personally, it’s a success as long as somebody’s feeling some sort of spirituality and getting some sort of healing from it.”



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