Hundreds of people flooded Mac Court for two days of singing, dancing and community building at the 49th annual Mother’s Day Pow Wow, hosted by the University of Oregon Native American Student Union.
The event welcomed Native Americans and non-Natives alike, allowing everyone to take part in Native American culture.
Before the event, NASU member Mitchell Lira said the best way for non-Native visitors to enjoy the event was to set aside any ideas of what to expect at a pow wow. As many non-Natives may not understand the significance of a headdress or the purpose of a pow wow, Lira hoped that attendants would glean a better understanding of Native culture by engaging and asking questions.
“If it’s someone’s first time and [they’re] non-Native, forget whatever you heard, forget what someone told you about Indians, Native people or pow wows when you walk in the door because it’s probably not accurate,” Lira, a Warm Springs Tribal member, said. “Have a conversation. We’re humans too. We’re not like aliens from another planet. We eat, we sleep, we do the same things that non-Natives do. We are different in ways, but we are human at the end of the day.”
The two-day event – split into three sessions – began on Friday evening with a group of tribal members, dressed in their regalia, blessing the floor and event by dancing on Mac Court. The grand entry followed the blessing. In a procession behind a color guard carrying the eagle staff, Native veterans carried the American, Oregon and P.O.W. flags. Non-Native veterans followed with a group of dancers dressed in beaded and feathered regalia coming in behind them.
Dancing to the beat of 4 Drums — the host band — the group of about 40 circled the arena floor before a young man delivered an invocation blessing the event.
The UO Mother’s Day Pow wow is unique in the fact that it has time delegated to honor mothers.
“As American Indians, we hold our women high in regard. They are the wing of the eagle that balances our life,” said Nick Sixkiller, the emcee for the event. “So we come here on Mother’s Day to celebrate them.”
According to Gordon Bettles, a steward at the Many Nations Longhouse on UO’s campus, the Klamath tribe had its first pow wow in 1954. He explained that during WWII, Native soldiers began interacting with other tribes that would host pow wows, and members of tribes brought the tradition back home.
“The significance is to bring people together from all different nations, all different tribes,” he said. “It’s a time for human interaction”
UO hosted its first pow wow in 1964 when it was the spring pow wow. Bettles said that Native students originally brought up the idea of having a pow wow for Mother’s Day. They wanted to include families in the traditional spring celebration.
Lira said that Native societies view women differently than non-Native ones. In Native American culture, women are sacred.
Bettles used examples in nature to illustrate Native American ideas about women.
When coming to a stream, the oldest female buffalo or deer crosses first, he explained. They know that if they cross safely, the rest of the herd can follow. Women are leaders and have set aside their “special talent in taking care of everybody,” Bettles said.
He went on to describe how his tribe, the Klamath, refer to fire as “grandma.” When he was a boy, the elders would ask everyone who was taking care of grandma every night. If they didn’t want to have to build a new fire every day, it would have to be kept going all night.
“Grandma is the oldest power. Grandma is fire,” he said. “You take care of grandma, she takes care of you. That’s mother.”
While all the dancers performing last weekend were Native, plenty of non-Native families and individuals joined the festivities. Anna Hoffer, co-director of the Native American Student Union, said that while they are traditional events, pow wows are not exclusively for Native people.
“I think that’s an important part because it allows people who are non-Native to come and appreciate who we are as a people and see we are still thriving and living,” she said.
After the intertribal dance — reserved for those wearing regalia — the emcee invited anyone who wished to dance onto the arena floor.
“We try to make it a friendly atmosphere,” Sixkiller, the master of ceremonies, said. “Anybody here, all the outside public, the non-Indians, they come and learn who we are and they can join us. They can dance with us.”
Surrounding the arena were vendors selling blankets, T-shirts and jewelry. Hoffer said that while it’s inappropriate for non-Natives to dress up as Native Americans or performing rituals reserved for tribal members, buying traditional goods from Native vendors is acceptable.
“When you actually buy things that are made by Native people you’re helping Native people survive,” she said. “You’re helping pay their bills and you’re also helping them keep practicing their culture as well.”
All the hosts asked for was respect for the culture and traditions. Bettles stressed that while everyone was welcome, appropriation isn’t acceptable.
“We are doing it because this is how we are raised,” he said. “The regalia is made by individuals who do it as a craft, not for a show. They put everything they have into this.”
Hoffer said an example of appropriation is when non-Native women wear headdresses. In Native culture, women do not wear headdresses.
“Pow wows are not a place where you can come and ‘look at the Indians,’ ” Hoffer said. “We are people and we should be treated respectfully and our practices should be treated respectfully.”
The Native American Student Union organizes and hosts the event each year, and students are in charge of every detail.
“For me, it represents student leadership, specifically Native student leadership,” Hoffer said. “This is a big thing that is going on and it’s always run by students every year. It’s pretty significant to show what Native students can do.”
NASU awarded Pendleton wool blankets to graduating seniors. The awards are for students who have been active in local and national Native tribal issues, Bettles said, adding that, “You don’t get one just because you’re an Indian.”
Bettles has been involved in NASU activities informally since 1972 and formally since 2001. He said this year has been an exceptional year thanks to high student participation. NASU exists to help Native students develop their identity and give them an opportunity to succeed.
NASU member Mitchell Lira said he is here to try to “level the playing field.”
“I mean to be somebody in this world you have to have this degree that says you can write and read really well,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is just trying to get this paper so I can say ‘Hey you know, look I can read and write really well. Let me make some change, let me do things in this world just like my white counterpart can do.’ I’m just as good as him.”