For the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began two years ago, powwow season has emerged in the Mountain West.
Brigham Young University, Weber State University, Utah Valley University and the University of Utah began hosting competitive and social powwows earlier this spring. This week, the American Indian Student Leadership club at Salt Lake Community College will host its annual social powwow on the Taylorsville-Redwood Campus.
The 2022 SLCC Spring Social Powwow — a gathering to honor Indigenous culture through drumming, dancing and socializing — is set for Saturday, April 16, from noon to 10 p.m. (with a dinner break from 5 to 7 p.m.), and is free to the public.
According to Rocklyn Merrick, a student and the event’s coordinator, it marks a return to normalcy for many Native and Indigenous people living in the Salt Lake area.
“My spirit feels full,” said Merrick, who is affiliated with the Diné, Oglala Lakota and Omaha Nations. “I feel whole again.”
Doors open at the Lifetime Activities Center at noon for the inter-tribal powwow, which will feature drummers, dancers, indigenous vendors, a frybread stand and a gathering of tribal members from across the Salt Lake Valley, Utah and neighboring states.
Though the event is free, members of the AISL club encourage attendees to donate non-perishable food items to benefit the Adopt-a-Native-Elder program, which delivers groceries, medical supplies, firewood and other goods to elders living on the Navajo reservation.
The nearly two-year pause on cultural events, including many Native powwows and rituals, created a void for many Indigenous community members who felt disconnected from each other and their traditions.
“I look forward to seeing people again that I have not seen, and in the powwow culture I miss the drumming, singing and the dancing,” said Jeanie Sekaquaptewa Groves, who is affiliated with the Hopi Nation of Hotevilla, Ariz.
The drum as heartbeat
Virtual gatherings were fine as a fill-in, Groves said, but powwows are meant to be experienced in person.
“When you are there, you feel everything, you feel the drum,” said Groves, an Indian education coordinator with Utah public schools.
For most Native American and Alaska Native tribes, Groves said, the drum represents the heartbeat and peoples’ connection to the earth.
“As an Indigenous woman and mother, the responsibility we feel is the need to connect to our Mother Earth to protect and to teach respect and honor her,” Groves said. “As mothers, it is our job to teach our children to do the same.”
In most Native American communities, the elders are the keepers of tribal history, traditional stories and cultural practices. A tribe’s knowledge and wisdom – language, agricultural and hunting practices, creation stories and ceremonial traditions – is passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions.
“We lost so many of our elders [to COVID-19], and we miss them,” Groves said, “but we also lost the knowledge.”
Teaching the next generation
Merrick, a pre-med major at SLCC and co-coordinator of the spring powwow, also volunteers with the AISL club. His intent is to help inspire Native youth to connect with both their culture and academics.
“My hope is to touch other Native kids’ hearts and to let them know that we are here,” she said. “There is a Native community at SLCC, and we are here to help them in their academic career.”
Merrick recalled that when she was a child, she attended the 2005 SLCC powwow — and was fascinated to see other Native people in an academic setting different from the boarding school she attended in Montezuma Creek, Utah. After attending the SLCC powwow, Merrick said, she knew she wanted to someday attend college.
“Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t have someone to look up to, and I didn’t want our traumas that come with being an Indigenous person to bring me down,” she said. “I wanted to prove I could do it, and that’s what drives me to put on this powwow.”
Attending powwows, Merrick said, offers a way to build connections between Natives and non-natives. Powwows were among the Native American spiritual and religious practices that once were federally outlawed, and finally made legal in 1978, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“Powwow is a time of social gathering [and] is fun and meant to be experienced,” Merrick said. “A lot of non-Natives ask me, ‘Am I allowed to go?’ Yes! Come feel the spirit of Indigenous culture and why … we fought so hard to have powwows.”
She emphasized that powwows, while social events, also honor Indigenous culture and encouraged non-Natives to attend in reverence. Merrick’s student club, AISL, posted a notice of powwow etiquette on their website, which features guidance for showing respect to Native performers and powwow traditions.
Valene Peratrovich wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.
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