A powwow will infuse Indigenous culture into Salt Lake Community College for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic brought an abrupt halt to social gatherings more than two years ago.
American Indian Student Leadership (AISL) club members at SLCC have been coordinating the 2022 Spring Social Powwow, which begins at noon on April 16 in the Lifetime Activities Center at Taylorsville Redwood Campus. After the two-year pandemic pause on cultural events, the void left many Indigenous community members feeling disconnected from each other and their traditions.
“I look forward to seeing people again that I have not seen for two years,” said Jeanie Sekaquaptewa Groves, a Title VI Indian education hoop dancing coordinator. “I miss the drumming, singing and the dancing [of the powwow culture].”
Groves, who is also affiliated with the Hopi Nation of Hotevilla, Arizona, said powwows are being welcomed back with much anticipation and joy because while virtual gatherings were nice, powwows are meant to be experienced in person.
“When you are there [at a powwow], you feel everything, you feel the drum,” Groves said.
Pandemic impacts Indigenous ties to heritage
The drum represents the heartbeat and peoples’ connection to Mother Earth for most Native American and Alaska Native tribes.
“As an Indigenous woman and mother, the responsibility we feel — the need to connect to our Mother Earth, to protect and to teach respect and honor Her,” Groves said. “As mothers, it is our job to teach our children to do the same.”
In most Native American communities, the elders are the keepers of tribal history, traditional stories and cultural practices. Groves shared that a tribe’s knowledge and wisdom — which includes tribal language, agricultural and hunting practices, creation stories, and ceremonial traditions — is passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions.
“We lost so many of our elders, and we miss them, but we also lost the [cultural] knowledge with them,” Groves said.
Next generation carries the torch of tradition
Rocklyn Merrick, a pre-med major at SLCC, balances college classes, family, and volunteering with the AISL club. Merrick, who is affiliated with the Diné, Oglala Lakota and Omaha Nations, is co-coordinating the Spring Social Powwow with the goal of inspiring Native youth with culture and academics.
“My hope is to touch another Native kid’s heart and to let them know that we are here,” Merrick said. “There is a Native community at SLCC, and we are here to help them in their academic career.”
Merrick recalled attending the 2005 SLCC powwow when she was a child, where she found it fascinating to see other Native people at a school that wasn’t the boarding school she attended, Aneth Community School in Montezuma Creek, Utah. After attending the SLCC powwow, Merrick knew she wanted to attend college someday, and understands the burdens that affect many Indigenous children.
“Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t have someone to look up to, and I didn’t want our traumas that come with being an Indigenous person to bring me down, I wanted to prove I could do it and that’s what drives me to put on this powwow,” Merrick said.
Fostering cross-cultural connections through experiences
Merrick believes that attending a powwow will build connections between Natives and non-Natives. She explained that Native American spiritual and religious practices were federally outlawed before being legalized in 1978, and the ban contributed to myths and stereotypes associated with many Indigenous traditions, including powwows.
“Powwow is a time of social gathering,” Merrick said. “Powwow is fun and meant to be experienced. A lot of non-Natives ask me, ‘Can I go … am I allowed to go?’ Yes! Come feel the spirit of Indigenous culture and why Natives love this and why we fought so hard to have powwows.”
She encouraged non-Natives to attend the powwow with respect and reverence for the culture and its participants, and invited attendees to review powwow etiquette before the event.
The 2022 SLCC Spring Social Powwow will be free and open to the public. Doors open at noon for the intertribal powwow, which will feature drummers, dancers, Indigenous vendors, a frybread stand, and a gathering of tribal members from across the Salt Lake Valley, Utah and neighboring states. The event lasts until 10 p.m., with a dinner break between 5-7 p.m.
While the event is free, members of the AISL club encourage attendees to donate nonperishable food items to benefit the Adopt-a-Native-Elder program, which delivers groceries, medical supplies, firewood and other goods to elders living on the Navajo reservation.