Honoring Education Powwow: An annual tradition

| Denise Olson

It's hard to look at Zorn Arena and see anything but a sports venue, home to Blugold basketball for the last 63 years. But on Nov. 7, the hardwood will transform into something that will look, sound and feel like a whole new world. Or maybe an old world? In fact, the annual UW-Eau Claire Honoring Education Powwow is the best of both.

The doors will open at Zorn Arena at 11 a.m., and Grand Entries of dancers begin at 1 p.m. The event runs until 7 p.m. Tickets, available at the door, are $3 for UW-Eau Claire students with a Blugold ID and for students 18 and younger, and $4 for others who are 18 and older. Admission is free for children under 5 and adults over 55.

Presented each year through the Office of Multicultural Affairs as an integral part of Native American Heritage Month, the powwow is a celebration of culture that bridges the customs and stories of the past with the energy and vitality of 21st-century Native American people from the UW-Eau Claire campus and the community. Music, song, dance, food and storytelling will bring together indigenous people as well as the greater community in a day of socializing and visiting with family and friends.

Like many campus events, the powwow is successful only through the efforts of students who work behind the scenes for months in planning as well as volunteering on the day of the event. In recent years, the number of student volunteers for each powwow has been close to 50, typically a fairly even mix of native and non-native students.

Senior Savannah Rigert, one of the event coordinators and co-president of UW-Eau Claire’s Inter-Tribal Student  Council, knows all the details involved in making the powwow a success. Ensuring that all aspects run smoothly, from the food vendors to tickets sales to dancer registration, as well as building logistics and accessibility, Rigert will keep moving throughout the day to bring the sights and sounds of the celebration to many spectators.

"A powwow is a social gathering, so it isn’t a special ceremony," Rigert explains. "It’s a chance for people to come together to dance, sing and socialize with each other, and it’s a way to preserve Native American heritage and renew the culture."

While the day is a significant gathering for the indigenous peoples in the community, Rigert and other students want the greater community to take the opportunity to learn more about Native American culture and heritage.

"It is recognizing that there is an indigenous population on campus and that our diversity is celebrated,” she said. "There is a chance for non-native attendees or native students who don’t dance to participate as well during an intertribal dance that will be announced by the master of ceremonies. People who attend the powwow might take a way a different perspective of what being indigenous is like and hopefully debunk some stereotypes."

That sentiment is echoed by Ashley Duffy, a 2015 UW-Eau Claire graduate and former volunteer coordinator for the powwow. As coordinator, Duffy tried to instill in volunteers their important role in helping all attendees practice respectful observation of the event.

Some of those spectator guidelines include not taking close-up photos of dancers, standing during the Grand Entry, and appropriate behavior and dress. In general, Duffy reminds attendees to listen carefully to the master of ceremonies, who is there to point out all traditions to be observed.

Dr. Odawa White, senior retention coordinator in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, sees the powwow as an essential on-campus expression and celebration of heritage.

"The message of our powwow to past, present and future American Indian students is that UW-Eau Claire provides a secure place for cultural expression and, most importantly, provides a sense of belongingness for native students, families and communities," White says. "It also allows native students to feel proud of their identity, meet other First Nations people, and build long-lasting relationships. This event is open to the public and we welcome all to experience a part of native culture."