It has the makings of a great event: delicious food, live music and people dancing in their finest attire. But the Central Michigan University Celebrating Life Pow wow is a learning opportunity, too, said student Alexis Syrette.
"Pow wow is a social gathering for Natives and non-Natives alike to come together and celebrate our culture through dancing, singing and connecting with friends," she said.
Syrette, a junior from Elkhart, Indiana, studying social work, and Hannah Bartol, a senior from Escanaba, Michigan, studying health administration, are co-chairs of the planning committee for the 29th annual pow wow March 17-18 at CMU. They have been working for months to pull together an event that will be as educational as it is celebratory.
Breaking down stereotypes
Bartol said she never planned to become involved with CMU's Native American Programs office and didn't intend to become an advocate for indigenous people. Although as a Native American she had been attending and volunteering at pow wows for many years, she said her plan was to simply pursue her degree at CMU.
After a few weeks on campus, however, she decided she wanted to counter stereotypes about Native Americans.
"Native Americans aren't some mythical people that existed long ago and disappeared. We are here. We want to dispel rumors and help people learn more about the ways we celebrate and practice our culture."
Information and celebration
In addition to their roles on the pow wow planning committee, Bartol and Syrette serve as student assistants in the Native American Programs office. They have given presentations to student organizations and spoken in classes. Now they want to do more.
"You can't share an entire culture and history in 30 minutes," Bartol said. "But if people are interested in learning more, we want to help them."
The office hosts numerous cultural events throughout the year, including Indigenous People's Day, Native American Heritage Month activities in November, and film and lecture series.
The pow wow is another chance for them to involve their peers and the larger community in hands-on learning about their culture, Syrette said.
“We are here to
dispel rumors and help people learn more about the ways we celebrate and
practice our culture.” — Hannah Bartol, co-chair of pow wow planning committee
A celebration with purpose
Ulana Klymyshyn, a former director of the Office of Diversity Education, recalled how the local Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe partnered with the university to host the first Celebrating Life Pow wow in 1989. Members of the tribe, faculty and staff from several program areas, and students served as the first planning committee.
"It was a lot of learning for all of us, just understanding what 'pow wow' meant and becoming educated about all of the different aspects that are involved. We relied very heavily on the tribe to provide guidance in that first year," she said.
Today, Bartol and Syrette lead a committee of about 25 students and staff to plan the annual event.
One of the team's challenges is to address two very different goals: meet the expectations of dance and drum competitors, many of whom participate in several pow wows every year, and educate and engage people who have never before attended a Native American celebration.
"We put together a program booklet with all kinds of information about the dances, the drums and traditions. Everyone on the planning committee will wear gold shirts — we want people to ask us questions," Bartol said.
They've also been training new pow wow volunteers.
Colleen Green, director of Native American Programs, said more than 80 student volunteers help run the two-day event. Bartol, Syrette and the planning committee give special training on customs, traditions and appropriate language, and also address logistical challenges of the event.
This year, the pow wow also will spotlight an issue important to both Native Americans and college students. Bartol said the planning committee approved a request for a special exhibition dance focused on youth suicide prevention.
"It's a critical mental health issue for everyone right now," she said.
Bringing people together
Ultimately, Bartol and Syrette hope that their hard work will bring people together. There is a key moment during the pow wow that captures that wish, Bartol said.
"The intertribal dance also is sometimes called a friendship dance. It's a chance for everyone, Native Americans and their friends and allies, to come together to celebrate," she said.