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Blugold shares family's traditions, culture through dance

| Judy Berthiaume; video by Jesse Yang

Like many Blugolds, Gabrielle White values the traditions — as well as the heirlooms — her family has passed down from generation to generation.

However, unlike most of her Blugold peers, Gabrielle gets to share her cherished family traditions and treasures with the UW-Eau Claire campus and greater Eau Claire communities.

Since she was a teen, the junior psychology major from Black River Falls has been among the dancers at UW-Eau Claire’s annual Honoring Education Powwow.

“I think sharing my culture with the campus and others helps people get to know me better, and it’s my chance to educate others about the history of one of the tribes in Wisconsin,” Gabrielle says of the annual event that attracts hundreds of people from the campus and community.

A member of the Ho-Chunk tribe, Gabrielle has been dancing for as long as she can remember.

“It is like a tradition,” says Gabrielle. “A lot of families pass down their different dance styles or, sometimes, an outfit or bead work, or the designs get passed down from generation to generation.

“One of my dresses is actually an older style design that I got from one of my grandmas. Some of my necklaces are from one of my great-grandmothers before she passed away. So a lot of them hold really great significance to me.”

Now in its 35th year, the Honoring Education Powwow attracts members of more than 15 Native American tribes each year, with participants coming from as far away as Nebraska, says Odawa White, a coordinator in UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and one of the powwow organizers.

Presented each year through the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Inter-Tribal Student Council and American Indian studies program, the powwow celebrates the culture that bridges the past with the energy and vitality of 21st-century Native American people.

Participants gather at the powwow to celebrate Native American heritage and culture through music, song, dance, food and socializing with family and friends.

The event is an important part of UW-Eau Claire’s Native American Heritage Month celebration every November, a time when the campus and community observe and pay tribute to the rich history and traditions of Native American nations.

“Powwows allow Indian nations to express themselves through song and dance,” Odawa says. “Some of the forms of the expression are through the dance styles and songs, which have evolved over a lot of years from a more traditional form.

“A lot of tribes come together for this event and they’re able to share knowledge, songs and different parts of their upbringing, including their family traditions.”

The powwow also is an opportunity for all to experience a vibrant heritage and culture, Odawa says.

“It’s a learning opportunity for all,” Odawa says. “There is a lot of sharing of songs, dance moves, jokes, and personal or traditional stories among tribes. The powwow experience is a learning opportunity for all visitors and spectators who stop by. We encourage everyone to ask questions so they can understand what is happening during the course of the event.”

This year, Gabrielle, along with her husband, had the honor of being the head dancers at the powwow.

The head dancers — usually one female and one male — are responsible for bringing the flags in with the veterans and making sure there is participation during the dances, says Gabrielle, adding that the head dancers dance almost every song.

The powwow begins with a grand entry, a time when all the dancers come into the arena, Gabrielle says. After the grand entry, dances display different styles and dance types.

Different age categories also get to do dance exhibitions, she says, noting that inter-tribal songs that invite everyone to dance are weaved throughout the powwow.

While the UW-Eau Claire powwow is special to her because of her connections to the university, Gabrielle and her family also participate in other powwows throughout the region.

“Every summer, we travel and go to a powwow almost every weekend,” Gabrielle says. “The past couple of years, we try to make it to different powwows that we haven’t been to before.”

In addition to being the head dancer at the university’s 2017 powwow, Gabrielle also was among the UW-Eau Claire students who helped plan the event.

Gabrielle serves as president of the Inter-Tribal Student Council, a student group that helps to plan the powwow. She also is an intern in the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which organizes the powwow each year.

Having a head dancer who also is a Blugold makes the UW-Eau Claire event even more special, says Gabrielle, who is the mother of two preschool-age children, both of whom already dance.

In addition to sharing a cultural event with the next generation of dancers, the campus event also is a chance to encourage the younger participants to think about continuing their education, say Gabrielle and Odawa.

“The gathering shows pride in our culture,” Odawa says of Blugolds like Gabrielle who are dancers at the powwow. “Hopefully, word spreads to other students, especially prospective American Indian students who might be interested in attending UW-Eau Claire.

“Our event promotes campus involvement with the powwow as a performer or even as a student organizer.”