UI Powwow seeks to break stereotypes, inform about forgotten cultures


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Spectators gathered around curiously as performers beat fiercely on drums, followed by a wave of synchronized moccasins as they swept into the University of Iowa Recreation Building for the 19th-annual UI Powwow.

Those running the event spoke of its ability to break down stereotypes and give light to an often forgotten culture.


"There's one [current] tribe in Iowa — the Meskwaki Nation," said Tyrone Peterson, the UI American Indian Student Association President, at the event April 7. "And it's like that in most places, too. A lot of people see us as extinct ... They rely on Western film stereotypes and what they've read in history books."

According to the 2010 Iowa census records, American Indians make up 0.4 percent of Iowa's total population and 0.2 percent of the population in Iowa City.

In 2011, roughly 0.3 percent of the undergraduate, graduate, and professional UI student population identified themselves as American Indian or Native Alaskan, according to the 2011 UI Student Profile report.

The UI Powwow is a competitive event that incorporates the tradition of many American Indian tribes into six main events, including men's and women's dances and drumming competitions.

The Burns family of Madison, Wis., had a new reason to learn about their American Indian history. Diana Burns, who was adopted, began researching her ancestry two years ago. She discovered she had a full-blooded relation to the Lipan Apache tribe.

Since the discovery, the Burns, including their two sons, have attended four powwows including this year's at the UI. Jim Burns said his family has received much help learning traditions from the American Indian community.

"The sense of heritage is important," he said. "We've had a lot of support along the way. With the powwows we've gone to, we've learned a lot about who we are."

Diana Burns said understanding American Indian culture became more important to her after her discovery. Depiction in films, she said, were too distant from reality for her to accept.

"I'm just trying to learn more about the culture," she said. "What you see in the movies isn't close to actuality, but when it's right in front of you, it's real now."

Diana said it's important to give her children an opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture they inherited. The Burns' sons got involved in a drum group with Tim Fish — Head Man and dancer at the UI Powwow and member of the Muscogee tribe.

Fish said he saw education of younger generations as the powwow's main priority.

"The most important thing is carrying on tradition," he said, while watching the boys' traditional dance category.

Though the UI Powwow brings together many traditions and cultures from tribes nationwide, Peterson said, the physical differences among the tribes are often unnoticeable.

"You're never going to know who's here unless you ask everyone individually," he said. "We're not the same; each person comes from a different background, a different tribe."

The respect these differences deserve is important, said spectator Benn Dunnington.

"This is an opportunity to show respect for people we've treated badly in the past," he said. "Our past is all that's left of our understanding [of the American Indian culture.] That's why it's a privilege to participate in this event and even spectate."

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