Powwow brings together tribes from across the continent

Story and photos b y Holly Dillemuth

A thundering drum beat and the distant sound of tribal song could be heard from outside McNeal Pavilion on Saturday evening as the 16th Annual Spring Powwow, hosted by Southern Oregon University's Native American Student Union, continued into the night.

Fabian Sutterlee of the Warmsprings Reservation in Central Oregon could tell by the deep, low pitch of the song coming from inside the gymnasium, exactly where the tribe was affiliated.

"That tribe's from down south," Sutterlee said, identifying the tribe of the drum as an Apache song. "They have their own style."

Sutterlee was among representatives of tribes ranging from Minnesota to the Klamath River in California who participated in the two-day powwow and tribal gathering, held last weekend at SOU.

The powwow's host drum travelled from Hobbema, Alberta, Canada, to lead the participants in song, including tribes from the Klamath River, who performed a Brush dance Saturday. A game of stickball, referred to as the "shimmy games," was played at the SOU football stadium Sunday.

For some, powwow is a social gathering; for others it is a time to maintain culture traditions. And for Sutterlee, powwow is a "form of religion."

"There's prayer that goes on that gives me strength," said Sutterlee, who is a nephew of SOU Director of Native American programs David West and Native American Studies Coordinator Brent Florendo.

For a Native American elder who spoke Sunday to the audience over loud speaker, "Powwow is part of a tradition that we need to hang onto. We have to tell our young what we are today."

More than 1,500 students, community members and participants attended the gathering as of Saturday evening, according to Marsha Small of Native American Student Union.

"Everybody had time to sit down and have a bite to eat with each other and have a few laughs," Small said. "You get to see old friends and make new friends."

Not everyone at the gathering was affiliated with Native Americans, including an SOU student dancing in honor of his indigenous Mexican heritage. Pedro Becraft, a senior anthropology major, had a different purpose for dancing in the powwow this weekend.

"I want to show my indigenous pride. I want to dance for my creator. I want to represent my culture," Becraft said. "They want to call us immigrants, but we're not. We are indigenous."

West expressed the importance of the event for SOU.

"This is a cultural activity that also provides recruitment and retention opportunities for Southern Oregon University and to showcase SOU and the Native American Student Union," West said.

Powwow began both days with a grand entry into the gymnasium where, in a flurry of colorful regalia, all of the elders, teenagers and children filed in showcasing their tribal dance.

One of the special events that followed was the recognition of veterans of all wars and from all branches of the Armed Forces, which occurs at all powwows. After the assembling of the color guard, veterans were honored for service to their country. For many Native American veterans, powwow is the only place they have received recognition since returning home from war.

Calvin Shadley, who grew up on the Klamath Indian Reservation, was one of the many Native Americans recognized on Saturday for his service in the Armed Forces. A resident of the Rogue Valley, Shadley commented on the importance placed on honoring veterans for the Native American Community.

"Native Americans are the only group of people that honor veterans of all wars, no matter what their nationality," Shadley said. "They will honor a warrior."

Shadley, a veteran himself of the Vietnam war, served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1965-66. He explained that, as a whole, honoring veterans is one of the first things they do at powwow.

Shadley was not dancing Saturday but was there to watch family and enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie of the tribal gathering.

"I come here to see family and friends. That's what a gathering is all about," he said.

Veteran Lee Greywolf Simmons, who served in the U.S. Navy, only recently found his Native American heritage and attends powwow to find connection with his ancestors.

"It's only been in the last 15 years that I even knew I was Native American," Greywolf Simmons said. The Eagle Point resident's brother had a chance to talk with both of their grandmothers and found that one grandmother was full-blooded Cherokee.

"Most of the Cherokee tribes either went willingly or by force," Greywolf Simmons said.

"But the real rebels, which is where I stem from, stayed in the Appalachian mountains and refused to move," which allowed the Eastern Cherokee to gain back a portion of land and a town in North Carolina called "Cherokee." After finding that he had Native American ancestors, Greywolf Simmons wanted to connect with his heritage.

"I've been coming to powwows for about six years," he said, but this was his first SOU powwow. "I love it," he added.

The NASU program will host a fall powwow in October. For information regarding additional powwows in the region and state, call the NASU office at 552-6463.

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