Student organization honors Native American tribes through Pow-Wow
Dancers dressed in feathers, headdresses and buckskin shawls taught students simple footwork for the round dance to the beat of drums at the heart of campus during the 40th anniversary powwow.
The Student Kouncil of Intertribal Nations hosted the powwow at the center of campus on the lawn next to the Malcolm X Plaza May 3. A powwow is a traditional American Indian Social event based on shared intertribal song and dance, according to John-Carlos Perea, assistant professor of the Department of American Indian Studies.
This year’s theme, “Celebration of Nations,” was created to invite and celebrate the different Native American tribes, according to SKINS chair and head of the powwow planning committee Nicholas Alexander Gomez.
“We wanted to reach out to all different kinds of tribes and have different representations that wouldn’t normally be seen at a powwow,” Gomez said.
About 200 visitors set up lawn chairs and tents surrounding the perimeter of the grass-covered arena space in which dancers performed and competed.
Before the powwow began, Monica Arellano, the vice chairperson for tribal council of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, offered a blessing and gave an official welcoming declaration to her ancestral homeland of the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We need to educate the public that this is our tribal land,” Arellano said. “They’re standing on Indian land where our ancestors lived, rose and where some are buried. So it’s important that we make ourselves present and that we educate the public as much as possible.”
As many as 50 dancers from tribes all over California donned vibrant regalia and bells as they entered the arena where they were introduced by the master of ceremonies during the grand entrance.
University of California, Berkeley hosted their annual Pow-Wow on the first day of the dance competition May 2 while SF State hosted the second day.
2015-2016 UC Berkeley Pow-Wow Princess and high school junior Arianna Antone-Ramirez, 17, participated in a blanket dance at the SF State Pow-Wow. During the blanket dance, powwow attendees help raise money for a certain cause by placing bills on a blanket in the arena for the dancing participant.
Antone-Ramirez said she used the blanket dance to raise money to pay for her air fare to study Spanish abroad in Spain.
“I promote higher education,” Antone-Ramirez said about her role as powwow princess. “And set a role model for the younger girls in the Pow-Wow community who are dancing for something good to aspire to.”
Young children and adults participated in various dance competitions throughout the day, including southern straight, men’s and women’s southern, men’s and women’s northern, traditional shawl, jingle dress and grass dance.
The main differences between these types of dances is usually the regalia and how the dancers want to portray themselves, according to Chelsea Slack, a member of SKINS and point person for the dressing room and regalia in the powwow committee.
“The whole point of (the grass dance) is to kind of look like grass blowing in the wind,” Slack said. “I know that the southern traditional men’s dance is supposed to portray hunting, so they look like they’re hunting, they’re searching for something.”
Slack said the men’s dances were judged on footwork while women’s dances were judged on the fluidity of dress and shawl fringe movement. Competition includes precision since both feet must be flat on the ground right as the song ends, according to Slack.
“It’s a really tough competition,” Slack said. “It’s really difficult. And everything else, it’s all about form, it’s all about attitude. People have to show a real dedication to it.”
Vendors at the event sold beaded jewelry, blankets and hats. One popular food vendor sold Indian tacos and Indian burgers with local buffalo meat as a replacement for beef. Handmade baskets woven by students in SF State’s Native American Indian Art class were showcased at a table near the arena.
Gomez said he was honored to organize the 40th anniversary powwow because of the Native American history associated with SF State.
The types of music and dance associated with powwows were outlawed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on reservations across the nation from 1890 to 1934, according to Native America in the 20th Century: An Encyclopedia by Mary B. Davis. Perea said that although the government did not directly make a specific law against powwows, reservation agents were advised to penalize people who danced. Perea said he believes that powwows are a form of activism.
“Part of the revolutionary or activist aspect is what it takes to participate and put these on,” Perea said. “It wasn’t too long ago that this was outlawed. It’s important for people to know that.”
Slack said that powwows are important to establish Native American character and presence.
“To me, (Pow-Wows) are really important because it allows people to express their identity with Native American heritage, and that’s kind of a big thing that they’re struggling against right now,” Slack said. “It’s a really awesome community, and everyone is always helping out everyone else and just the environment and atmosphere is really awesome.”
Edwardo Madril, lecturer in the Department of American Indian Studies, has danced for 35 years and has attended SF State’s powwows for 15 years. He said he likes how close-knit and community-oriented the event is.
“There’s a lot of people here who know each other so it’s community,” he said. “It feels like a community, it’s intimate. It doesn’t feel like a spectacle.”
Gomez said that it is fitting to have a powwow at SF State because of the Native American activism that took place on campus.
“San Francisco does need that representation for Native American indigenous culture, (SF State) State in general,” Gomez said. “With the College of Ethnic Studies, Richard Oakes and all the radical stuff that has happened here, it’s in our history, it’s in our blood that we do have a powwow.”