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Freshman is head dancer at Powwow

Photo by Zach Forstrom.

The 22nd Annual Powwow for the Woodlands & High Plains Cultural Journey was recently attended by over 2,000 people on Concordia College’s campus and featured  Concordia’s very own freshman Aimee Smith as the head dancer.

Smith went to high school on the White Earth Indian Reservation. Dale Thorton of the American Indian Outreach Office on campus would go to her high school to help with classes. One day, he sent her an email about a powwow committee that was forming and knew Smith had danced for most of her life so Thorton asked her to be a part of it.

Being asked to be the head dancer for such an important program was a surprise to Smith; the day was full of planning and scrambling around so everyone knew what their task was.
This event  introduced, honored and celebrated the distinctive traditions of Native American tribes from the region, along with the educational achievements of American Indians in higher education.

Volunteers from each of the four colleges and the Fargo-Moorhead community serve on the powwow planning committee. Committee members coordinate head staff and honored guests, dancers and drummers, vendor volunteers, along with every dimension of planning—fundraising, publicity, volunteer recruitment, catering, facilities, payouts and hospitality.

“It definitely takes a team to plan and host an event that lasts almost 12 hours,” Karis Thompson, coordinator of the Pow-wow, and assistant director of Office of Intercultural Affairs, said in an email interview.

“Since Concordia hosted this year’s WHP Powwow,” Thompson said, “our Intercultural Affairs team—including my coworker Sonja Paulson, and our student leaders—organized all of the campus-related arrangements and facilitated the work of the Planning Committee by coordinating meetings and work throughout the academic year.”

Each year, the Woodlands and High Plains Powwow offers students and staff at each of the four colleges, along with members of the regional community, an opportunity to enter into the experience of a powwow: one of the most exciting, enduring cultural traditions within the region where everyone can learn about the achievements of Native Americans in higher education.

“The whole day was a blur,” Smith said. “We had to lead the volunteers and tell them what we needed done and when. We had to set up everything and run through everything. I was so surprised at how many people I recognized from campus walking to class that were there.”

Paulson worked with Thompson in coordinating efforts behind the Powwow. Paulson assisted with coordination behind catering and concessions. Effort was directed toward the volunteer effort, which involved students and community members who were needed at various places throughout the event. The powwow would not have been possible were it not for the dedication and time offered from the steering committee that was comprised of people from across the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“One of the unique aspects to the powwow is its duration,” Paulson said. “It is truly a celebratory, revered event that lasts for an entire day late into the evening.  Perhaps the most riveting part of the day was toward its close, when dancers from across the region put all of their heart into the dance.”

The dances were divided by age and category.  Dancers ranged in age from three years old to over 70.  During this time, those in attendance were able to witness the feelings put into the dance and understand the significance of this tradition. Head dancers consist of the head man dancer and the head woman dancer. The head dancers lead the other dancers in the grand entry—or parade of dancers—that opens the powwow. They are responsible or leading the dancers during songs, and often times dancers will not enter the area unless the head dancers are already out dancing.

A student assisting with the event was junior Elise Tweten. She was involved as an intern this year through the Office of Intercultural Affairs.

“I was basically in charge of recruiting and organizing volunteers at Concordia,” Tweten said in an email interview. “It’s more than just showing off their culture; it’s a way to remember who they are and where they have been.”

Powwows became popular in the late 1800s as a form of resistance to aggressive assimilation policies in the United States. Through the years, non-Natives would complain that dancing caused immorality and fought against powwows; they are still powerful displays of resilience and tradition.

Being chosen as a head dancer has made such an impact on Smith’s thoughts of Concordia, and she hopes this event has broadened people’s horizons of traditions not normally discussed on campus.

Despite being worried of what other students would say about her being Native American and at first being hesitant when asked to dance, Smith is very proud of her culture and felt the need to represent it. Smith also expressed her feelings towards the negative portrayals Native Americans are given in the media, and how daily lives on reservations are nowhere near the depictions portrayed books or movies.

“I have never personally read Native American-based literature, but I can just about imagine what it would say. There is not a huge difference [between Indian Reservations and where non-Natives live],” Smith said. “Mahnomen is on a reservation and you would not even know. The tribe itself is an independent nation. We have our own tribal police department, tribal government and tribal natural resource department. You couldn’t tell by our houses or the cars we drive.”

When Smith was asked to be a dancer, she was hesitant to what her friends would think after finding out that she is Native American.

“I don’t, like, carry an eagle feather with me all day, but I definitely am a part of it [the tradition],” Smith said. “It is funny when people are like ‘you don’t even look Native American.’ I don’t, but I am!”

Seeing the familiar faces really made Smith realize the support she had while showing off her native culture, which made her feel even more proud to be a representative; she thought it was neat to see how many attendees were actually interested in her background. This made her feel much more at home at Concordia.

“I just want the people here to know that just the people here and the atmosphere and what we are known for really contributed to what made me want to be a head dancer,” Smith said. “I knew that I would be able to do it and not worry about what others would think. Everyone made me feel comfortable.”


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