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Stanford Report, May 15, 2002

'Destroying stereotypes': Powwow continues mission to share cultures Annual Native American event draws thousands while celebrating end to demeaning university mascot


Alumna Isabel Byrnes, Class of '94, still remembers her emotions when, as a student, she first witnessed the sights and sounds of hundreds of American Indian dancers in full regalia gathered for the annual three-day Stanford Powwow. Byrnes had never seen anything quite like it, she said.

"I grew up in L.A. I was just in awe," she said on Sunday, as she waited in line for an Indian taco with her husband, Andrew, in the Eucalyptus Grove. Since 1991, Byrnes, now a Redwood City resident, has missed only two powwows -- and during one of them, she was out of the country. "I love the cultural sharing," she said. The sheer size and beauty of the powwow are humbling, she added.

Now the largest student-run powwow in the country, the Stanford Powwow was started in 1971 by the newly organized Stanford American Indian Organization to offer an alternative to the image of Native American cultures depicted by the university's mascot at the time, a caricature of an Indian.

Graduating Native American Law School students were honored with Pendleton blankets this weekend during the annual Stanford Powwow. Pictured above, from left to right, are Travis Helms, Beth Jervay, Heather Nason, Jessie Minier and Carolyn Royce. Photo: Dean A. Eyre III

A year later, then-President Richard W. Lyman recommended that Stanford drop the mascot, in response to a petition signed by 55 Native American students and staff, who called it demeaning and degrading. The actions and "pseudo-traditional costume" worn by "Prince Lightfoot," a Yurok named Timm Williams who danced at football and basketball games, was particularly insulting to Plains Indian students and made a mockery of traditional practices, the petitioners wrote. "The students have been raised to have a great deal of respect for the dancers who have earned the honor of performing tribal rites ... we cannot and will not accept the demeaning, insulting ways in which this symbol distorts the image of the Native American and prostitutes the religious aspects of all tribes in general."

The 2002 powwow program commemorated Lyman's decision and the 30th anniversary of the mascot's removal. "I'm very pleased that someone thinks well of that decision. I've gotten so much flak over the years for it," said Lyman, now J. E. Wallace Sterling Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus, and a senior fellow at the Institute for International Studies.

"I think the powwow does bring awareness" of the diversity of Native Americans, said sophomore Javier Marquez, who's Diné and a member of the 2002 Stanford Powwow Committee. "I hope it helps destroy stereotypes."

When most people think of Native Americans, "they think of something like this," Marquez said, pointing to an old powwow poster on the wall of the Native American Cultural Center, showing a line of Plains Indians on horseback photographed in front of a tepee. "When you see people dancing from a bunch of different tribes, you realize they're not all the same," he said.

Along with contest and exhibition dances, the powwow began on Saturday and Sunday mornings with a Gourd Dance, named for the beaded gourd rattles that dancers shake. The Gourd Dance tradition began with the Kiowa tribe in Oklahoma and has spread to other tribes, said a gourd dancer who asked to be identified only as Van. Gourd dancers have been initiated into tribal warrior societies or clans and are veterans of the armed forces, although some participants dance to honor relatives who have died in combat, Van said.

In contrast to the elaborate and brilliantly colored regalia worn during other powwow dances, many gourd dancers wore cowboy hats and boots or caps and sneakers, with red and blue blankets drawn across their shoulders. Their dance blesses the powwow ground with the warrior spirit, said Van, who considers participating in the gourd dance to be akin to going to church. Before the powwow begins, the grounds also are blessed by members of the Muwekma Ohlone tribe, who are indigenous to the area where the university now stands.

On Friday night, Jarrid Whitney, assistant dean of undergraduate admission and coordinator of Native American recruitment, was wearing a traditional Iroquois headdress, a gus-to-weh, made of a leather band covered with turkey feathers; a 40-year-old deerhide breechclout given to him by a friend; and a ribbon shirt and leggings made for him by Augie Galvan, a student affairs officer in Residential Education. An eagle feather in the back of his headdress symbolizes Whitney's particular tribe, the Cayuga Nation, he said. (According to federal law, Native Americans are allowed to use eagle feathers in traditional practices.)

The powwow is an intensely social gathering for participants, who spend the weekend connecting with friends and family -- Whitney was accompanied by an uncle, Ron Williams, from Ithaca, N.Y. Family members usually travel to Stanford to join him at the powwow, Whitney said.

Marisa Poolaw, a freshman from Anadarko, Okla., was wearing a beaded buckskin dress of her tribe, the Kiowa. Like Whitney, Poolaw didn't intend to enter dance contests but was joining in the Grand Entry of dancers that begins each day's events. Her grandparents drove out from Oklahoma to join her for the powwow, Poolaw said. "We're just having fun," she said.

Her first experience with Stanford came a decade ago, when she came to the powwow to visit her aunt, Linda Poolaw, who was curating an ethno-photography project and exhibit at Stanford, she said. "I loved it. I knew I wanted to go to Stanford. I had to be sure and keep my grades up."

Head woman dancer Sharon Eagleman, of the Fort Peck Sioux and Ottawa tribes, and head man dancer Leon Old Elk-Stewart, of the Crow tribe, danced a two-step Saturday. Photo: Dean A. Eyre III