The Power of a Pow Wow

Tommy Pham | New University

Tommy Pham | New University

The 11th Annual UC Irvine Pow Wow, organized by the American Indian Student Association (AISA), took place at the Mesa Court Fields last Saturday and Sunday, May 18 to 19. The event was open to all UCI students, staff, faculty members and the outside community to watch traditional Native American dances, listen to music and learn more about the culture.

“Pow Wow has a wide history,” Bluebird Taylor, one of the Chairs of AISA and a fifth-year urban planning major, said.

“It has a bunch of different origin stories depending on which tribe, and even within the tribe, there are different kinds of stories. They are so vast that we can’t label it down to one thing. Some pow wows originated as a kind of healing — kind of like a ceremony … now pow wows are kind of seen like celebrating your culture.”

Richard DeCrane, the UCI Pow Wow’s Arena Director, explained the significance of the gathering for the Omaha people.

He said that for this group, the pow wow originates with warriors hunting and gathering for food. When the warriors returned home to their families with food, there would be a celebration to honor their safe arrival during times of war. Although the traditional pow wow has evolved over time and now features dancing competitions amongst different tribes, the origins for this tribe are rooted in celebrating the return of the warriors.

The UCI Pow Wow was set up in a circular formation, with space in the middle of the field for each tribe to dance, sing or play drums. Chairs were set up around the circle for audience members to watch and enjoy the beautiful performances. Over on the basketball courts, vendors were set up for visitors to purchase Native American clothes or jewelry, or to try different types of food.

Each performance exhibited a different style and meaning, depending on the tribe. Different types of drums are used depending on whether the tribe is southern or northern, and there are also differences in the song and dance styles. However, even though the art forms vary, each dance signifies a story and the songs are usually sung as a form of prayer. Each outfit worn by the dancers is intricately handmade and sewn together. The regalia can take up to a year or more to make, as each outfit is very symbolic and must be created according to traditions and customs.

Tommy Pham | New University

Tommy Pham | New University

The main student organizers of the pow wow were Co-Chairs Sienna Whittington and Bluebird Taylor, and AISA Outreach Coordinator Melissa Lewis. The preparations involved numerous phone calls and spreading the word by visiting other pow wows, but despite all of the hard work that was required, the two girls don’t mind it at all, because it gives them an opportunity to share their culture with UCI.

Sienna Whittington is a third-year sociology and anthropology double major and has been a member of AISA for the past three years. She joined when she first came to UCI as a freshman after living on the Gila River Reservation in Arizona for her entire life. As a member of the Akimel O’odham, Navajo and Hopi tribes, she wanted to find a way to preserve the culture she grew up with.

“I wanted to continue being involved within the native community, and so I joined the American Indian Student Association to find similar people like me and find a second home because it was a big transition moving from the reservation to the city,” Whittington said.

“I had never lived in the city before. So I was looking for a support group, and that’s how I found AISA. We are a cultural, social, political and educational organization. We are housed under the Cross-Cultural Center, and as an organization, we like to outreach to the native community on campus and off campus.”

As a part of these efforts, AISA members mentor, tutor and encourage students at Sherman Indian High School in Riverside to pursue higher education. Members also attend community events to represent AISA, attend local and out-of-state pow wows, host the Native Youth Conference at UCI and engage in a number of other activities.

Tommy Pham | New University

Tommy Pham | New University

While the pow wow has varying meanings within the Native American community, Bluebird Taylor hopes that this event brings a greater education and awareness to UCI students.

“I want them to know that we’re here — I think presence is a really big thing. It’s kind of scary when you talk to people and they don’t think Native Americans are here anymore, or they don’t really believe you because they think Native Americans are a myth,” Taylor said.

“I want people to know that we are willing to educate – we want them to come out and talk with us because we’re really proud of our culture.”