‘We’re still here’: Oakland powwow honors and celebrates Native American culture through dance

The tinkling of bells and the pounding of drums echoed and echoed through Pitt’s campus as Native American dancers and artisans converged on Schenley Plaza for a powwow on Wednesday.

The powwowa traditional exhibit of Native American culture and heritage, was part of Pitt’s Indigenous cultural festival. The week-long festival featured events like inuit sculpture classeducational exhibits in the Global Hub and Hillman Library, and the launch of Pitt’s official website land recognition.

Pitt partnered with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy and the Council of Three Rivers American Indian Centera local organization dedicated to serving Native Americans in the Pittsburgh area, to bring the powwow to campus.

Michael Simms, powwow coordinator for COTRAIC, said powwows create opportunities to celebrate Native American culture and educate the public.

“A powwow, for us, is a chance for us to get together with our family and friends and share stories, share culture, dance and sing,” Simms said. “For the public, it’s their chance to learn about our culture and who we still are as Indians, as well as experience Native American cuisine and also our Native American craft vendors.”

The powwow began Wednesday morning with Mark Tayac, the hereditary chief of the Piscataway Nation based in Maryland, addressing an audience standing around a circle of hay bales. Tayac called for solidarity among Native Americans, saying their culture is still alive across the Americas.

Claire Sheedy | Visual Editor Wizard

“Here in the United States, as American Indians, we represent over 500 different nations and tribes. Many of our people have different languages, different customs, different traditions – we are very diverse across our traditional homes, our languages, our cultures, our traditional governments, our economy – but we believe that we are all one people,” Tayac said. “We represent, as indigenous people, every inch of land in all of western hemisphere.”

After the Tayac welcome, dancers dressed in traditional costumes regalia entertained the crowd with a grand entrance dance. Throughout the day, Pitt students strolling through Schenley Plaza saw performances by various Native American dancesincluding traditional, fancy, grass and jingle styles.

Emmanuel Todd-Barajas, a male traditional dancer from Choctaw and Seminole lineage, said he has been celebrating his ancestry through dance since he was 8 years old.

“It was really good to dance, to be able to do it, like we were able to do for many years – keeping the traditions alive is something that’s really important to me,” Todd-Barajas said. “There are a lot of misconceptions as Indigenous people that we deal with in the media, that we deal with in life. It’s good to teach the public about Native culture and what we really are – that we are still here in the city of Pittsburgh as well as around the world.

The event, COTRAIC’s first in Pitt, was organized in anticipation of the 43rd Annual Pow Wow in Dorseyville this weekend. Pitt will offer a Free Shuttle at the powwow on Saturday morning. Simms said powwows are held all over the country, from tribal lands to state parks, but COTRAIC chose Schenley Plaza so the organization could reach Pitt students.

Claire Sheedy | Visual Editor Wizard

“For Pitt students, it will give them a chance to see and learn about our culture firsthand instead of just through a textbook, or through what Hollywood has done to our culture, which isn’t not accurate,” Simms said. “This is our chance to share who we are and how we fit into today’s community.”

Students who stopped by the powwow could also browse crafts from various vendors, each representing elements of their Native American heritage in their wares.

Rachel Sadowski, a Michigan saleswoman who sold handmade soaps and medicinal herbs at powwows, said she was there to channel her culture and dispel myths about her people.

“I am a soap maker. I make all my own soaps — I have lotions, lip balms, lotion bars, I have medicine available and available, I have shells,” Sadowski said. “People need to know Native Americans are still here…we’re not a mascot, we’re not your costume for Halloween.”

Simms said significant exhibits of cultural heritage are essential to maintaining Native American identity in the United States.

“All kinds of heritages have certain months and days, and they’re very well celebrated, where November is Native American month, and there are people doing things for that, but it’s not as broad as d other groups, especially in the Pittsburgh area,” Simms said. “We are still here, we still have an active Indian community and we are still working on identifying ourselves and not being mixed up with other people.”

The primary purpose of the powwow is education, Simms said, but entertainment is also a factor.

“The overall goal is definitely [to] informing students, staff and faculty as well as the public…it’s to inform and educate them about who we are, but also give them a bit of entertainment,” Simms said. “It’s a wow factor to see how our culture has evolved.”

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