The Washington Post
A joyful tradition returns
Hundreds attend the first Native American powwow at the University of Maryland held since before the pandemic
Lynne Dyer, 58, awoke at sunrise Saturday, determined to showcase her Native American culture. A member of the Nanticoke Lenni-lenape tribe in Delaware, she drove about 90 miles to attend a Native American powwow at the University of Maryland in College Park. “Anytime we can spread our knowledge of who we are and share our culture and history, it’s a great chance to raise awareness about Native Americans,” Dyer said while wearing her traditional regalia. “I want to be a part of that.”
She was among hundreds of attendees — both Native American and non-native — who attended the event at the Adele H. Stamp Student Union. Organizers at U-MD. had hosted powwows in the 1990s, then ended the tradition. They restarted in 2019, but the pandemic altered plans for the past three years. Saturday’s event was the first to be held in the pandemic era, bringing together members of various tribes for a celebration of culture.
Organizers say Saturday’s attendance was the highest in years at the powwow, which was hosted by the Native American and Indigenous Student Union, and the Office of Multicultural Involvement and Community Advocacy.
“It’s been a great turnout,” said Kota Harley, 25, an organizer from the Piscataway Conoy tribe in Southern Maryland. “It’s amazing, and we’re glad to know the community is here to support Native Americans, and it gives us a chance to show what goes on in the Native community.”
More than 70 percent of Native Americans live away from their tribal communities, with powwows giving them opportunities to gather and reconnect with others from different tribes and to honor their history and heritage. Powwows are “a celebration of being Native,” said Dennis Zotigh, a powwow historian and cultural specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
Zotigh served as the master of ceremonies Saturday and often gave the crowd a short history lesson. The land where the campus sits, officials reminded, was once part of the Piscataway tribe’s homeland.
Zotigh explained other Native American traditions such as the “Flag Song,” are considered to be as important as “The Star Spangled Banner” to many Native Americans. He said seeing the U.S. flag come onto Indian lands once signified “death, destruction, genocide and removal.” But after Native Americans fought in World Wars I and II, “they came back with new respect for the flag and for their country,” Zotigh said.
Two drum groups — the Zotigh Singers and the Uptown Singerz — sang as dozens of dancers in full regalia, the traditional outfits worn by Native Americans in ceremonies and at powwows, celebrated their heritage. Zotigh said the groups played a combination of songs: old, traditional or more contemporary.
“We want people to know — and see — that we’re still following and carrying on those traditions, even as our ancestors went through so much,” Zotigh told the crowd.
Rick Sloan, 72, of Capitol Hill, said he came to the powwow because he had never attended one and was curious to learn more about Native American culture for a book he’s writing about tribes in Canada and Maine.
“It’s an incredible showing of solidarity,” he said as he watched the dancers and listened to the singing. “So much of American Indian history is a black hole and unknown to the broader U.S. I wanted to come and see what it was like.”
Most modern-day powwows started in the early 19th century. Historically, tribes didn’t have powwows because they were too far apart from each other, and in many cases, they were enemies. “You wouldn’t be caught dancing in another person’s powwow,” said Zotigh, who is Kiowa/ohkay Owingeh Pueblo/isante Dakota.
The U-MD. powwow is one of hundreds held around the country each year, and it’s one of the few in the D.C. region. Often, there are dozens each weekend hosted by tribes across the country.
At U-MD., organizers said it was especially important for Native Americans to feel like part of a community because there are so few Natives among the university’s roughly 40,000 students, according to organizers. Fewer than 1 percent of the undergraduate students at the College Park campus were American Indian or Alaska Native as of fall 2022.
“The Native population is almost nonexistent on the campus, so we’re hoping this will let people know we’re here and we exist,” said Ayden Allston, president of the Native American Student Union and a member of the Nottoway Indian tribe of Virginia.
Max Yamane, one of the powwow organizers and a member of the Uptown Singerz drum group, said holding the powwow on campus is “good for Native students and the community so they can see there are other people like them.
“It’s a chance to show Natives have a presence at the university,” he said. “It’s about fighting that invisibility.”
Misty Rose Nace, 45, who is part of the Brokenhead Ojibway and the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nations in Canada, came from her home in Mechanicsville, Pa., with her sons to dance at the powwow.
“It’s a good, positive activity for my kids,” she said. “It’s good for their heart, their spirit, and it helps them to be proud of who they are.”
“Anytime we can spread our knowledge of who we are and share our culture and history, it’s a great chance to raise awareness about Native Americans.”
Lynne Dyer, 58, left, a member of the nanticoke lenni-lenape tribe in Delaware