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Powwow offers chance to celebrate, educate

On Saturday, April 5, 150 dancers and 16 drum groups from around the region gathered at the University of Minnesota, Morris for the 30th annual Circle of Nations Indigenous Association Powwow. (Brooke Kern/Sun Tribune)1 / 4
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MORRIS – On Saturday, April 5, dancers from across the upper Midwest came to the University of Minnesota, Morris for the Circle of Nations Indigenous Association 30th annual powwow.

This annual event is both a celebration and a way to acknowledge UMM’s legacy as an American Indian boarding school.

The idea of powwows originated among the tribes of the Great Plains and often served as a religious ceremony. Although they still serve that purpose for many, modern powwows have transformed – some traditional powwows serve as a celebration or ceremony, while competition powwows offer space for individuals to compete in different dance styles, said Becca Gercken, associate professor of English and CNIA advisor.

The CNIA Powwow is much like a traditional powwow, although it does incorporate some competitive dances. Because of the timing, the CNIA Powwow can, for some dancers, serve as a “warmup” for the competitive powwow season.

“We’re really a family powwow – most people who come have family that come here or work here,” said Gercken. “Students’ parents and aunts and uncles and cousins come to dance. … If you talk to a lot of the vendors and a lot of the older dancers, they really like our powwow because it’s more like a traditional, small powwow like they would have at home.”

Dianne Desrosiers, a 2005 graduate of UMM and resident of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate reservation, said UMM’s powwow is an opportunity to CNIA to showcase Native American culture and call attention to UMM’s history as a Native American boarding school.

The first buildings on the site of the current campus were for an American Indian boarding school, which was administered by the Sisters of Mercy order of the Catholic Church and, later, the government of the United States. In 1909, the school was closed and the campus was transferred to the state of Minnesota.

“Not everybody knows that, and a lot of the history of boarding school’s is not known in the mainstream,” said Desrosiers. “I’m glad that the students here are able to have a powwow and invite people so that we still accept and acknowledge the history of Morris because it’s important.”

Over the last five years, members of CNIA have built up the celebration, bringing in more vendors and attracting more dancers – 2013 was the biggest powwow to date with more than 150 dancers, said Kelsey Scareshawk, powwow co-chair.

The approximately 30 student members of the organization spend most of the school year preparing for the event each spring. Students have also worked hard to make the powwow more of an educational experience for audience members who aren’t familiar with American Indian culture or traditions.

“They’ve really tried to make sure that people that come have the chance to not just see it, but can actually get questions answered and can learn things about the powwow,” said Gercken.

Each powwow opens with the Grand Entry, when all dancers line up and enter the arena floor. After the Flag Song – the equivalent of a national anthem – and the Victory Song, dancers from all nations are invited to share the floor. Throughout the powwow, the master of ceremonies will announce different groups of dancers to take the floor.

This year’s powwow included an honor song for two community members, student Jeff Kirkwold who died last September of a brain aneurysm, and community member Joy McIntosh who passed away recently. Joy and her husband, Aubrey, were involved with CNIA, said Scareshawk.