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Healing power of pow wow

Native American community unifies in pow wow while celebrating diversity among tribes

Alexis Syrette came to Central Michigan University because of its relationship with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

The Mishawaka, Indiana sophomore said she wasn’t raised around a large native population. Syrette affiliates with the Batchawana First Nation tribe of Ojibway Indians of Sault Ste. Marie Ontario, and she felt it was important to attend a university where she could surround herself with similar people.

Since she was a girl, Syrette has danced and competed in pow wows across the country. Now, at CMU, she is a student committee member who helped organize the annual “Celebrating Life” pow wow on campus.

“(I can) give my input by sharing what other pow wows have done,” Syrette said.

CMU’s Native American Programs office hosted its 28th annual “Celebrating Life” pow wow March 18-19 in McGuirk Arena, where thousands of people came to celebrate Native American culture. Pow wows bring different tribes together throughout the year across the U.S. and Canada.

While CMU’s pow wow promotes cultural awareness in the Mount Pleasant community, it also has a strong purpose within the Native American community — to bring tribes together and share different traditions and practices with each other.

The pow wow at CMU is meant to provide tribes the opportunity to unify and share different traditions among each other. It is also meant to benefit and educate both the CMU and Native American communities by showing the tribe’s differing cultures and dispelling stereotypes associated with native people.


Hannahville junior Hannah Bartol decided to attend CMU because she felt welcomed as a Native American student on campus.

“What I do at home I can also do here,” Bartol explained. “Different small things, like smudging. I do that back at home and I can even do it in the (Native American Programs) office.”

Smudging is the practice of burning of sage, which Bartol describes to cleanse the environment and bring around positive energy.

This year, Bartol was chair of the university’s pow wow committee. Having a pow wow on campus allows Native American students to educate others about the culture closely entwined with the city, she said. 

“This is one of the best university pow wows put on, definitely in the state of Michigan,” Syrette said. “With our native population and relationship with the tribe here, it really helps build a good foundation for putting on a pow wow in the first place.”

Because CMU uses the Chippewa name and attracts Midwestern native students, Syrette said it’s important to have the pow wow every year on campus to educate the student body.

“We are the Central Michigan Chippewas, and I don’t think a lot of people understand the Chippewa name and where it comes from.” Syrette said. “We are really close to the Tribe here and I think it’s important for not just us to participate in the pow wow but for anyone on campus to come and learn about the culture.”

Yvonne Moore, a member of the Mackinaw Band, which is made up of Ojibwa and Odawa tribes, established CMU’s pow wow nearly three decades ago. She believes the event is critical for raising awareness between Native Americans and the local community.

“Every student should be aware that if this land had not been gifted, they would not be here,” Moore said. “It’s important that students honor our ancestors by recognizing us.”

Because people tend to view other cultures with their own cultural perspective in mind, pow wows are a valuable educational experience, said Hunter Sagaskie, an Ojicree from Memphis.

“Exposure is very important when it comes to any minority group,” Sagaskie explained. “(While) we probably have more native people on campus than a lot of other campuses, it’s still very small compared to other minority groups and the majority. Exposure allows people to have that chance to see what our culture actually is, who we are and what we represent.”

This weekend was the first time freshmen students Hayley Baerwalde and Lily Soule experiened a pow wow. They attended because as CMU students, they were inspired to learn more about Native American traditions.

Both of them felt that after attending, their understanding of the university name was enhanced.

“It’s important at a school using the Chippewa name to understand the Native American culture,” Baerwalde said. “It’s important to take a second, step back, and appreciate who they are, their culture and (everything) they do.”

In light of the clean water issues at Standing Rock, where tribes gathered to stop production of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Bartol said the pow wow is especially unifying this year. The sentiment applies to those both within and outside the Native American community.

“People saw this issue that wasn’t only affecting the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, but was affecting all people who got their water supply from there,” Bartol said. “People (at CMU) really rallied to donate. It brought us together as a common issue for everyone.”

Moore went to Standing Rock to protest earlier this year. She said thousands of people also joined, despite coverage claiming only a few hundred protesters were present. She said there was more cooperation and support in Standing Rock than ever depicted by the national media.

She stressed that both the native and non-native community must continue to come together and fight for clean water — together.

“They never talk about the oil spills in Kalamazoo and Marshall, Michigan — the worst on land oil spill ever,” Moore said. “I am a water protector. I know I’m going to have to come forth because we have places right here in Michigan.”


Tribes from more than 20 U.S. states and Canada come to the pow wow every year, Bartol said. The gathering celebrates the unity of the Native American community while showcasing the variation of tribal culture.

This year, Bartol estimated 50 tribes were present at the pow wow. The differences in regalia and various dance styles featured demonstrate the cultural diversity exhibited at McGuirk Arena this weekend.

About 180-200 tribal members from across the continent came to participate in dance and drum competitions for prizes of up to $4,000. It’s a “way of life” for many who frequently travel to different pow wows to compete and celebrate the culture, Sagaskie said.

Brennah Wahweoten of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe in Mayetta, Kansas, performed in the Fancy dress dance and the traditional women’s dance this weekend. She agrees with the “way of life” mentality and said she hoped her performance demonstrated her culture to those in other tribes and non-native attendees.

“Its competitive and it’s something I take seriously,” Wahweoten said. “They (attendees) should as well.”

Pow wows also promote unity and building relationships within the Native American community, Syrette said. From traveling to different pow wows, she has established a connection of close friends and family who she sees throughout the year.

At CMU, unity was exhibited in ceremony during the Grand Entries, which Syrette described as the kick off festivities where all the dancers enter the stage together.

Pow wow attendees stood during Grand Entry to observe and honor Head Veteran, George Martin, as he led pow wow dancers and flag bearers across the floor. Dancers of all ages were dressed in full regalia that varied from earthy-tones in color to having vibrant feather accessories. Differences in dress represent the region of their tribe.

Grand Entry ended with The Flag Song, which is comparable in significance to the U.S. Pledge of Alliance, and symbolizes respect for all different tribes and sovereign nations.

The rest of the day was filled with drum and dance performances and competitions, where performers exhibited different traditional dance styles distinctive of their culture, including the fancy dance, grass dance, woodland dance and jingle dress dance.

The fancy dance featured intricate footwork and colorful attire, while the jingle dress dance showcased dresses with 365 small metal cones to represent a prayer for each day of the year.

Five drum groups circled around the edges of the arena floor were comprised of the Spotted Eagle, Crazy Spirit, Anishinaabe Nation, Midnight Express and the host drum group, the Boyz. As the Grand Entry began, the Boyz pounded on their drums, filling the arena with passionate song and beats.

“Whenever I’m going through a rough time, I just go to dance and sing,” said Matthew Oshkabewsisens, a member of the Odawa tribe from Ontario who did a Northern Traditional dance. “It helps bring my spirit back up.”

Oshkabewsisens said his dance carries a lot of spiritual energy and is significant for his tribe because of its healing power.

“For those that are into hop-hop, that is their culture,” he continued. “This is my culture.”

Due to emphasis on giving back to the native community, Sagaskie described the traditional giveaway ceremony at the end of every pow wow, where all participants get to take something home to cherish from the event.

“Part of the funding goes toward items that we (give), such as CMU apparel, mugs towels and toys for children,” Sagaskie said. “After recognizing the committee and everyone who helped put on the pow wow, we give back to the community by allowing everyone to take something home with them.”

Showcasing different tribes is important, Sagaskie explained, because when people talk about Native Americans in general, there’s a specific image that comes to mind that doesn’t represent the population.

“There’s a stereotypical view of native peoples,” he said. “What is really a very vast and diverse group of people is seen as just one thing. Every native nation and tribe is different and unique in its own way, and all bring something from their group to the table. It’s good to have that impact, especially on people who don’t run into native people that often, because it shows them that we’re not all the same.”