Annual Spring Powwow brings together students and community members

David Specht

While it might seem that a pow wow is simply a celebration of Native American culture and spirituality, it is actually an opportunity to come together as a people — a celebration of all walks of life.

On April 5, Grand Valley State University’s Native American Student Association will host the 16th annual Spring Pow Wow. The gathering, held at the Fieldhouse Arena, commences at 11 a.m. and concludes at 8 p.m., with grand entries occurring at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

A pow wow, also known as a traditional jiingtamok, is typically set up as an array of giant circles. The inside circle is generally the dance arena, beyond which is a bigger circle composed of the Master of Ceremonies’ (MC) setup, drum groups, and sitting areas for dancers and their families. Outside of these two circles is a space for spectators. Circling both the Master of Ceremonies’ setup and dance arena are areas filled with vendor shops selling traditional food such as wild rice soup and buffalo burgers, as well as various arts, wares, music and regalia materials.

Jonathan Rinehart, a Native American activist who has been involved in GVSU’s pow wows for the last decade, said the gathering is centered on the aspect of equality.

“The one true way that we can come to understand each other is to be exposed to different cultures,” Rinehart said. “We look for the similarities in what brings us together as opposed to what moves us apart.”

One element of the celebration in particular that seems to bring people together is a dance known as the two-step. Whereas during the traditional Native American dances men and women never come into contact with one another, the two-step brings the two parties together in the form of holding hands and dancing in unison.

“Many times they will tell stories in their dance,” Rinehart said. “If you’ve ever seen two eagles attached during their courtship, displaying their affections, sometimes that is what the dancing appears to demonstrate.”

Another memorable component of the pow wow is the music, which comes in the form of drumming. As Nikole LeCompte, a senior at GVSU and president of NASA, explained, this is the most impactful part of the celebration.

“Something about it just gets into your soul,” LeCompte said. “It’s something you can feel throughout your body.”

LeCompte also finds that the dancers’ outfits, known as regalia, are another feature appreciated by visitors.

“The regalia usually strike a lot of people, simply because it is a lot to take in visually,” LeCompte said. “There is so much variety in regalia, from traditional buckskin regalia to very elaborate and brightly colored regalia.”

Equally important as the traditional formalities are the people conducting them, such as the MC, who is the voice of the pow wow. In past years, visitors of GVSU’s spring ceremony have traveled from regions as far as Canada and Minnesota to partake in the celebration.

This year, one of the most important individuals involved is a Laker.

“Our MC this year is Derek Bailey,” LeCompte said. “He is a GVSU alum and was the tribal chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians for a while.”

LeCompte said Bailey — having recently received a presidential appointment by President Barack Obama to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education — is quite the guest of honor. But beyond the excitement of the experience lies an opportunity to educate oneself, and at the end of it all, that is what the pow wow is all about.

“I want (those who attend) to gain an appreciation for the culture and people, and have any stereotypes shattered,” LeCompte said. “A pow wow is a fun experience and a great opportunity to learn and grow your cultural awareness. I encourage the students to ask questions and engage with any dancers and vendors they encounter.”

And for Rinehart, the pow wow represents the body of students coming together in unity and solidarity.

“We may all come from different quadrants of the circle of life,” Rinehart said. “But we’re still given the opportunity to join together and celebrate this experience, allowing us to move forward in a positive way.”

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