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Sunshine Roman-New Moon performing a shawl dance.

At the 2009 Stanford Powwow, Sunshine Roman-New Moon performs in the Intertribal Dance. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

It takes a tribe - of dedicated undergrads - to 'raise' the Stanford Powwow

The annual celebration of Native American culture, which will be held Mother's Day Weekend in the Eucalyptus Grove on the Stanford campus, will feature singing, dancing and drumming, and artisans and food vendors selling their wares. More than four-dozen Stanford students have been working since September to produce the event.

As a child, Maija Cruz recalls chasing the rippling fringe of a teenage girl's shawl as she whirled around a powwow arena doing the light, quick steps of the Fancy Shawl Dance, which mimics the flight, elegance, agility and endurance of the butterfly.

L.A. CiceroPrevious Stanford Powwow participant in traditional costume.

The annual Stanford Powwow draws participants from American Indian tribes near and far.

"My mom says I fell in love with her the first time I met her, since I thought she was a real live princess – even though that was just a powwow dance competition title," said Cruz, a Stanford junior and co-chair of the 41st Annual Stanford Powwow, a three-day event that begins Friday in the Eucalyptus Grove.

By the time Cruz (Ojibwe) was 10, the teenage girl she had idolized – named Deanna – was married, with a child of her own, living on the Lac Du Flambeau Chippewa Reservation in Wisconsin. Cruz asked her to teach her the steps of the Fancy Shawl Dance, so she could perform it "correctly" and dance it the way her cousins did.

"I'll never forget her explaining to me that there were no steps, that it was a feeling, something that only the drums and something inside of me could teach me," Cruz said. "She said I needed to just move and let it come out, that I would know when I got it right."

Cruz found the feeling of the dance – by listening to the drums and her heart.

"I realized I was doing it right all along," she said. "I was dancing and I loved it. It was as close to being a butterfly as I could get."

So Cruz will be watching the Fancy Shawl Dance competition at this weekend's Stanford Powwow with a special fondness.

"It is my favorite dance," she said. "The dance is very much alive and in front of me, whether I'm the one dancing or not. "

Celebrating Native American cultures

A powwow is a large social gathering of Indians – a place to renew old friendships and forge new ones, to celebrate and preserve a rich cultural heritage through singing, drumming and dancing, and to introduce the old ways to the young. It is also a place for non-Natives to become part of the celebration of Native ways.

Powwows are held year round, all across the country. Some, like Stanford Powwow, feature competitions in dancing and drumming.

"Having the powwow at Stanford means a lot to me as a Southern Straight dancer," said sophomore Layton Lamsam, who is an Osage tribal member and co-chair of the 41st Annual Stanford Powwow, referring to his tribe's style of dancing.

"Everyone likes to share his or her culture," he continued. "Children love to share things that they think are exciting – I feel the same way about powwow. Even with how diverse Stanford is, I encounter a lot of misconceptions about Native Americans on campus. Some students just don't know anything beyond mainstream TV, and sometimes not even that. The Stanford Powwow is an immersive environment that captures a sense of awe for first-timers."

L.A. CiceroNico Phoenix competing in 2009 Stanford Powwow

Nico Phoenix competes in the 2009 Stanford Powwow teen boys' traditional dance competition.

The Stanford Powwow is free and open to the public. Participants are expected from American Indian tribes near and far. The event is expected to attract about 30,000 people. It is the largest student-run powwow in the nation.

"We are from our own separate cultures all around Indian Country, but we also live in the mainstream world in the Bay Area," Lamsam said.

"Stanford Powwow allows us to bridge the gap between peoples who live in only one world or the other. The bridge we try to create manifests itself in Stanford Powwow's openness. We strive to make Stanford Powwow as friendly and inclusive as possible. First-time visitors may be unfamiliar with powwows and the culture that goes with it. We understand this, so we want to make it as easy as possible for visitors to learn, participate and have fun."

Asked what he would tell a non-Native visitor to the Stanford Powwow, Lamsam said he would ask that person to count up all the Indians they see, and compare that to the number of Indians he or she sees on a regular basis.

"The majority of Indians today live in urban areas, where the Native American population is spare – to say the least," he said.

"It's not at first obvious, but living in a place where one is isolated from their culture and what is familiar to them can take a toll. That makes powwows so much more important for those living in cities. It's an oasis where they can get a little bit of home. I am Osage, originally from our reservation in Oklahoma. My tribe is small, and I can barely find an Osage at a powwow, much less in everyday life. If it weren't for technology, I don't know what I'd do."

Native Americans in elegant full regalia

The Stanford Powwow will open – as all powwows do – with the Grand Entry, the procession of Indians dressed in full regalia into the arena. The Friday procession, which begins at 7 p.m., will include a color guard of veterans, young people chosen to represent their communities as princesses and warriors, drummers, elders and dancers, ranging in age from tiny tots (under 6) to "Golden Age" women and men (55 and older).

The powwow, which is a drug and alcohol-free event, ends Sunday at 6 p.m. with the announcement of the winners of the dancing and hand drum competitions.

In between there will be competitions in Fancy, Grass, Jingle, Southern Traditional and Northern Traditional dancing, a 5K Fun Run/Walk, a performance by Aztec dancers from Calpulli Tonalehqueh of San Jose and Gourd Dancing.

Stanford Talisman, a student a cappella group, will perform at the Stanford Powwow for the first time. One of the songs the group will sing is Cheyenne Prayer Song, which combines prayers from the Cheyenne and Blackfoot tribes, arranged by Talisman alumnus, Adrien Wagner, '12, a member of the Blackfoot Tribe of Montana.

The Stanford Powwow will feature a marketplace with more than 100 vendors, some selling arts and crafts, others selling food and drinks. At one booth, the Indian Health Center of Santa Clara Valley will offer health screenings.

At another booth, children will be invited to make clapper sticks, an Ohlone musical instrument, using reeds from Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. One of the goals of this year's Powwow Committee is to offer more activities for kids.

"In Indian culture, we really value children," Lamsam said. "Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a large K-12 outreach."

A tribe of students and volunteers

The "headquarters" of the Stanford Powwow planning committee can be found in the Old Union, in the comfy lounge of the Native American Cultural Center. The Stanford American Indian Organization, an umbrella group for Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaska Native students on campus, hosts the event.

The 41st Stanford Powwow Committee comprises 11 subcommittees, each one headed by a student: booth, contesting, fundraising, publicity, security/camping, facilities, program, alumni, volunteer, Fun Run and sales.

Therien Paskemin dances in the junior boys'  competition at the 2009 powwow. Photo: L.A. Cicero

Therien Paskemin dances in the junior boys' competition at the 2009 powwow.

All told, more than four-dozen Stanford students have been working since September to produce the event. More than 200 volunteers will join their ranks during the three-day event.

The fundraising committee's goal is to raise enough money –  $160,000 – to break even. Some of that money is used to pay the salaries of the professionals who compose the Stanford Powwow's Head Staff: the Head Woman Dancer, the Head Man Dancer, the Head Judge, the Arena Director, two Emcees, and the Head Southern Drum Group and the Head Northern Drum Group.

The Powwow Committee, which received $15,000 in special fees funding from the university, has raised money by collecting private donations and vendor fees, and selling ads in the powwow program. They also will be selling Stanford Powwow T-shirts and sweatshirts at the event. This year, for the first time, the fundraising committee invited people to pay $20 for a two-sentence tribute to their mothers to be published in the program.

Joshua Hoyt, a sophomore who heads the fundraising committee, said mothers are revered in Native American communities.

"Being that powwow takes place over Mother's Day weekend, it made sense to include a section in the powwow program for students and faculty to honor their mothers," said Hoyt, a member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and the Turtle Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota.

It's like running a small business – or a tribe

Currently, there are about 350 Native Americans enrolled at Stanford, including graduate students, said Karen Biestman, associate dean and director of the Native American Cultural Center.

She said producing the powwow represents a leadership opportunity for students.

"We have 120 booth vendors showing up from all over the country and Canada,"  Biestman said.

"Students are also engaged in sales. They have to make choices – from the artist who designed the poster to the members of the Head Staff – and communicate difficult decisions. They have to say 'no.' They have to balance budgets. They have to inspire teamwork among their peers and lead by example. They're all the kinds of things you would do running a small business – or a tribe."

Biestman said the Stanford Powwow has the university's wholehearted support – from its academic and administrative communities, the Athletics Department, the Office of Public Safety, the Office for Religious Life, the Office of the Vice Provost for Student Affairs, as well as students and alumni.

She said Stanford Powwow has established a reputation for excellence – a place where Native dancers, singers and drummers want to perform – and as a place that offers a warm welcome to Native families that camp in the Eucalyptus Grove during the powwow.

"In the end, Stanford Powwow is a celebration – that's the attraction," Biestman said. "People take enormous pride in the powwow. It's a testament to the vitality and continuity of Native culture – and how Stanford, as an academy, champions it."

Media Contact

Karen Biestman, Native American Cultural Center, (650) 725-6945, biestman@stanford.edu

Elaine Ray, University Communications: (650) 723-7162, ray@stanford.edu