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campus student life

First Nations’ annual Traditional Powwow canceled in wake of solar eclipse


IU First Nations Educational and Cultural Center canceled its 2024 Traditional Powwow as both IU and the larger Bloomington community prepare to participate in events for the solar eclipse, according to a press release from the office of the Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion on Jan. 22.  

The Powwow is traditionally planned for the beginning of April, but this year, the total solar eclipse is happening on April 8, during which Bloomington is expecting 300,000 visitors and hosting eclipse-related events. Some of these events are happening across IU’s campus, leading to a lack of available space.   

Sherene Ing, who is Diné and director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center, said in an email that the culture center worked closely with IU Athletics since last summer to secure Wilkinson Hall for the Annual Powwow in April. She said IU Athletics notified them that the space was unavailable for the first two weekends in April at the end of the fall semester.  

The center then expanded its search to other campus locations and several local venues but, Ing said, all the spaces were claimed for various programs and events. Ing said there are many events related to the eclipse, including concerts, lectures, Science Fest and other activities on campus the weekend of the eclipse. The weekend after the eclipse, several music events including Bloomington Delta Music Club Presents, WIUX’s Culture Shock and Burning Couch festival are being held in Bloomington, followed by the Little 500 on April 19 and 20. Final exams will take place the week of April 29, and IU Graduation ceremonies will be held the weekend of May 3.  

Due to the lack of a venue during this timeframe, Ing said the center decided to cancel the Powwow but looks forward to organizing it next April. 

The Traditional Powwow attracts hundreds of visitors each year and hosts a line-up of nationally-known singers, like Ho-Chunk Station, a family drum group that has won numerous awards and championships at Powwow's throughout the US. It also features dancers, traditional food and crafts, according to the culture center’s website. During the event, performers continue cultural traditions, representing their people through feathers and beadwork, regalia, songs and dance styles.  

The hundreds of people, spanning across generations, share in song and dance and celebrate the diversity of modern Native American tribal identity, according to the website.  

Verna Street, one of last year’s head dancers, Native American dance teacher, owner of the Raven Street Dance Studio and member of the Cherokee, Tuscarora and Meherrin Nations, said she was surprised and sad when she heard the Powwow was canceled. Street travels to similar events across the country and said the events help bring together Native American communities, as well as the communities hosting. 

“The food that they served, the booths that they had there,” Street said. “You could really tell that the staff and the students, it was more than just a regular event. It was something that they were connected to.” 

The cancellation is disappointing, Street said, because even by missing one year, as they did during COVID-19 in April 2020, the Powwow loses momentum and presence.  

“I believe that the Native American presence is very important,” Street said. 

Having Powwows on university campuses is important, Street said, because it helps spread cultural awareness. Powwows are a part of how the United States began, she said, so it’s important to show its connection to that beginning. Street said attendees don’t have to be Native American or raised in Native American culture to attend the event or dance. That is until a competition is announced, and then only professional dancers are allowed on the floor.  

Street said that hearing the drums and seeing the dancing is both a unique and healing feeling. The connection someone gets while watching the competition and hearing the stories behind the dances, she said, is lost when events like the Powwow aren’t held. 

“Being able to share that with everyone else is a part of it, it coincides,” Street said. “So with not having an event that I just feel like you know, it's a stumbling block, for people to keep us present, that we're still here.” 

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IU senior Catherine Bartlett, who said she’s a member of the Rosebud Indian Tribe, said she was disappointed when she learned that the 2024 Traditional Powwow was canceled because she’s a dancer and loves having her culture brought to Indiana. 

But Ing, Bartlett said, has worked hard to get other activities for Native American students and faculty to do, like going to the Navajo nation over spring break. 

“One thing I do like about the Powwow though, is bringing our culture to people who've never really experienced before,” Bartlett said. “So having it not this year, my senior year, it's a little bit disappointing.” 

Bartlett said she helped organize the head staff of last year’s Powwow, which included getting dancers and drummers from different states to perform.  

“It's just great to hear people who have similar languages and similar dances to my culture,” Bartlett said. “It feels really empowering to be in a room full of Natives, because that normally never happens in Indiana.” 

Events like the traditional Powwow are important on two levels, Bartlett said. The first, she said, is allowing Native Americans to feel like they’re still connected to their culture and their people. She said it’s crucial they’re seen, heard and receive recognition that they’re still here.  

A 2018 survey from Reclaiming Native Truth found that 40% of respondents didn’t think Native Americans still existed according to an article from the Grand Falls Tribune. 

The second level, Bartlett said, is giving students and faculty who have never experienced native culture the opportunity to see what it’s like to be a part of it. 

“It kind of helps the perception of Native Americans because they get to meet a Native face to face and see us dance,” Bartlett said. 

For future Powwows, Bartlett said highlighting Indigenous people particularly from Indiana is important in addition to people from Native tribes outside of the state.   

“We are not all the original caretakers of the Midwest,” Bartlett said. “So it's important to highlight those people who have been here longer than we have.” 

Even though this year’s Powwow isn’t happening, Barlett said people should come to next year’s Powwow, so they can continue to recognize that indigenous people are on IU’s campus.  

Meredith Gray, who is involved with the center and the Powwow planning committee, said they were disappointed when the Powwow was cancelled this year. Even though they are not Native American, Gray said they’ve gotten a lot out of the Powwow and have seen how important the event is to their Native friends and the community.  

Being involved at the center and the Powwow as a non-Native American student, Gray said, has taught them a lot about taking a step back and letting others take the lead.  

“I have really gotten the opportunity at the First Nations center, to be in a space that isn't mine and to be aware of that,” Gray said. “And to be able to learn and grow with others in a way that's respectful of their background and making space for them, that's centered around them.” 

Indigenous American communities have conducted ceremonial gatherings for centuries, according to the Sacred Springs Powwow website. Modern Powwows come from more recent ceremonies that began in the Plains area. 

During the 1800s, according to the website, the U.S. government seized land from the Lakota, Dakota, Blackfoot and Ojibwa people in the Northern Plains and the Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee and Ponca people in the Southern Plains. This period of forced migration and upheaval resulted in intertribal exchange and solidarity among Plains Natives.  

According to the Sacred Spring Powwow website, two intertribal traditions, the Drum Religion, a sacred drum ritual that fosters peace and friendship, and the Grass Dance, a merged form of different tribal dances, emerged. Other tribes began to adopt and adapt these traditions as they were diffused through the Plains region.  

During the reservation period, according to Sacred Springs Powwow, many ceremonies and customs were outlawed. Because the Grass Dance was more social, it was one of the only events allowed. As many tribes were pushed together, it was soon clear and necessary to transfer the traditions of the Grass Dance between tribes.  

IU’s Traditional Powwow, Gray said, is a celebration of culture: specifically, a culture society historically hasn’t been kind to.  

“For indigenous people being able to connect to their culture, and also non-Indigenous people getting to learn about that culture firsthand,” Gray said. “I think that's really powerful, so I was really disappointed that it wouldn't be possible this year.” 

More information about the 2025 Traditional Powwow will be released at a later date, according to the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center.  

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