University of Iowa pow-wow keeps traditions alive

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 11, 2011 7:20 AM

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Thunderous drumbeats cut through the humid spring air at the Recreation Building.

More than 50 Native American dancers kept pace with the beat April 9 at the 18th-Annual University of Iowa Powwow. Men, women, and children from all corners of the Midwest assembled before a crowd of spectators for many reasons: some to compete, some to relax, and some to pass on traditions learned during childhood.

Yet a broader motivation united those with Native American heritage at the event: a desire to raise awareness for fading customs of the past.

Bob Morgan, an Arizona native with more than 20 years of dance experience, said dying traditions and modern pressures have reduced interest in powwows among the Native American community.

“[Dancing] is a dying entity among Native Americans,” said the 57-year-old, who traces his ancestry back to tribes in the Bima River area. “A lot of [native] language has been lost. With language goes traditions — a lot of it goes hand-in-hand.”

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Morgan said he is glad to offer his instruction to new dancers at powwows. Yet funding issues have made such cultural celebrations at the UI difficult to run.

“We had to work pretty hard to get support [for the powwow],” said Autumn Ingels, a co-head of the UI American Indian Student Association. “It takes more fundraising than it does ticket sales to support an event like this.”

The 22-year-old estimated this year’s powwow cost around $35,000. She said the American Indian Student Organization is expecting roughly a quarter of funding to come from admissions, alongside a combined $20,000 from several UI offices.

Native Americans made up 0.4 percent of those enrolled at the UI in the fall of 2010.

Organizational difficulties from rapidly growing participation with small student support put the powwow on hiatus from 2006 to 2008, Ingels said.

Peer pressure on youth in this small population means further difficulty spreading the traditions. Morgan said his son, who also competes in powwows, was often teased at school for growing long hair as part of Native American customs.

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“We try to teach them that you shouldn’t be embarrassed to wear your hair long,” he said. “That’s your choice.”

For some, the celebration was a relaxing outlet. James Sanderson Jr., who traveled from the Quad Cities for the powwow, said dancing helped him find balance in the face of everyday stress.

“When you get in [the dance] it seems like everything floats away,” the 19-year-old said.

Sanderson, who traces his ancestry back to the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians, said his parents began teaching him tribal customs and traditions when he was 2.

Sanderson performed in the northern traditional dance style on April 9, which was commonly used by northern Native American tribes following hunts or skirmishes. It features the simplest regalia worn at powwows, though Sanderson’s vibrant red ribbon shirt, bell-laden boots, and feathered headdress formed a majestic figure against the light from the sun through the windows.

He said many Native Americans dance to tell a story or reflect on something in their lives.

“I’m just here to pray,” he said. “When we dance, we’re praying.”

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