The University of Pow Wow: Arizona Schools Welcome Spring in Style


Spring is student pow wow time, especially in the west where milder winter weather allows comfortable outdoor events. In the state of Arizona, home to 22 federally-recognized tribes as well as three state universities, there’s lots of planning currently underway for upcoming events.

The largest and longest-running of those student-sponsored singing and dancing festivities will take place at Arizona State University in Tempe during the 26th Annual ASU Pow Wow as part of American Indian Cultural Week activities on campus.

“Singers and dancers from all over the U.S. and Canada will compete for prize money as they share cultural heritage and diversity with other Native American students,” says Lee Williams, a pow wow planner for the three-day festivities to be held April 20-22.

Dual Masters of Ceremonies, Sammy Tonekei White of Anadarko, Oklahoma, and Dennis Bowen of Tuba City, Arizona, will welcome visitors for a daily gourd dance and grand entry. Host Northern Drum will be Mandaree of New Town, North Dakota, while Buc Wild of Chinle, Arizona, will act as Host Southern Drum.

Competition categories range from a drum contest to Tiny Tots (6 and under), Golden Age (50 and over) and the in-betweens --- Junior Boys and Girls (7-to-12), Teen Boys and Girls (13-to-17) and the 18-to-49-year-old group, both men and women. The adult category will encompass Northern Traditional, Southern Traditional and Southern Straight, a Fancy Dance, Grass Dance, and Prairie Chicken Dance, and a Fancy Shawl event. Several age groups will offer varying skill levels in a Jingle Dress category, an Objibwa Nation-originated presentation popular in the early 1900s and currently experiencing a nationwide revival.

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2011 University of Arizona Wildcat Pow Wow

Further south, in Tucson, the Native American Student Affairs (NASA) group is putting finishing touches on a University of Arizona Native tradition, the 16th annual Wildcat Pow Wow, April 13-14. “The Native American population at U of A is proud to showcase the beauty of our culture and give Native students a sense of belonging,” says former NASA director Amanda Tachine.

“A pow wow like this brings together our spirituality and culture with dances ranging from the little ones to the elders and the different styles they represent --- the jingle dances, the fancy shawl, grass dances, gourd dances. The Tucson area is on land of the Tohono O’odham and the Pascua Yaqui and the richness and diversity here is beautiful.”

Tachine, previous Wildcat Powwow Society President Nicole Scott, and Native student volunteers worked a full year to organize, fund-raise, and make the 2011 event a reality, a process being repeated in 2012.

“Within the campus Native American community, there’s always a sense of excitement and anticipation for this event and the dedication and passion displayed by current committee members through fundraising efforts and recruiting new members continues that tradition,” says Wildcat Pow Wow advisor Mandy Cheromiah, former Miss Native American University of Arizona title holder.

Scott, a Navajo from Leupp, Arizona, adds: “Although I didn’t grow up in the pow wow circuit, I got involved with the Pow Wow Society when I came to the U of A because pow wows allow Native Americans to come together to dance and sing and appreciate each other. For the little kids who get a chance to dance, it creates a lifelong memory and I’m hoping we are good role models for them.”

One of the Pow Wow Society’s founding members, Lee Jackson, a former president of the Southwest Gourd Dance Society, said: “The pow wow serves as a great community event, bringing together families of students and people from tribes from all over the country. And it also helps in terms of student retention by bringing something familiar to an unfamiliar new environment for students just getting acclimated to the campus.”

“It takes a lot of hard work for students to get into this school and once they’re here, we do our best to support them the whole way through to graduation,” adds Tachine.

Making this special event even more special this year is a dedication in the Women’s Plaza of Honor honoring Native American Women of Arizona. “Just before the pow wow begins, we’ll be dedicating an archway in recognition of all the federally-recognized tribes in the state with an individual or group honoree selected by each of the tribes,” said Leigh Spencer, Program Coordinator. “This is a living monument on campus to honor all women from all walks of life, not just the famous. If your grandmother makes the best oatmeal cookies in town, her story would belong here.”

And then there’s the third of Arizona’s trio of state universities, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, where things get a bit problematic.

The last student-sponsored Spring Contest Pow Wow there was held in April 2004, a gala event that took place indoors under what was once the largest clear-span timber dome in the world. Performers from many of the state’s nearly two dozen tribes sang and danced over a two day span. But rental costs to use the 97,000-square-foot floor space in the $8 million Walkup Skydome are expensive.

It’s taken this length of time to pay off the thousands of dollars in rental fees for that last pow wow, according to Gary Elthie, then a student who helped coordinate the event. Now an employee at NAU’s Institute of Tribal Environmental Professionals, Elthie says: “Plans for another student pow wow in 2012 are reportedly in the works --- but still up in the air --- possibly in September, or perhaps in coordination with a pow wow that ITEP has under discussion as part of our 20-year anniversary in November.”