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Building community through sharing Native cultural heritage

The University of Utah has a history of recognizing its connection to the Indigenous tribes that once lived on the land the institution currently occupies. And each year, the U’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) stages a pow wow meant to celebrate and pay homage to the traditions brought forth by the Native Peoples who laid the foundation for those of us who came after them. This year’s event is set for April 13, 2024, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. Doors open at 10:00 a.m., with the event starting at noon.

A pow wow is a gathering held by many North American Indigenous communities. Today, pow wows provide opportunities for Native American and First Nations (Canada) Peoples to socialize and honor their cultures, often including traditional songs, dancing, and ceremonies. On campus, the AIRC uses the event as a vehicle to enhance the sense of community among university students, staff and faculty. But it is also meant to reach beyond the U’s communal borders.

“It’s an opportunity for student leaders to highlight their leadership through planning and implementing a large-scale event on campus,” said AIRC Program Manager Tashina Barber (Diné). “It’s also a chance for community members to see the Native representation on campus.”

She added that it further provides an opportunity for Native youth to participate on a college campus, allowing them to experience and imagine themselves in a space like this.

“We can celebrate our students, and really create that sense of belonging for future students who want to pursue their educational dreams,” Barber said.

The pow wow is designed to provide a cross-cultural engagement learning experience for those who do not identify as American Indian who want to learn a little bit more about the culture.

“It’s a safe way to be involved and participate because it’s open and welcome to anyone who is interested in attending,” she said.

This year’s Pow Wow–themed, “Weaving communities an making connections” – is being hosted in partnership with the Urban Indian Center of Salt Lake and Salt Lake Community College (SLCC).

“This year, we’re bringing different viewpoints from all across Indian country to make one fantastic pow wow.  With this collaboration, it will be an extremely welcoming environment for all people to attend,” said Winter Rex, Student Success Coordinator American Indian/Native American Students at SLCC. “When we work together as a team, we are stronger.”

Alan Barlow (Diné), executive director of the Urban Indian Center which serves five counties along the Wasatch Front and Tooele County, said most individuals who are enrolled tribal members nationwide live in what are considered urban areas, and that number is increasing.

“What we’ve seen since the 2010 census, is the population in (their service area) has more than doubled,” he said. This phenomenon is likely to continue, he added, which will mean even greater opportunities for mutual community engagement from tribal members and non-tribal members alike.

“A lot of what we’re looking to do in this upcoming year is celebrate our traditions and memories that have led to who we are today,” Barlow said.

He said pow wows are by nature celebratory, so those who may not be as familiar with Native culture can appreciate the community gathering aspect that can offer a sense of welcoming and belonging.

“They are gatherings for people who are coming together for a common purpose, though the purpose doesn’t have to be defined in stone,” he explained. “It can be malleable or move along a continuum to fulfill a need of everyone there. It’s meant to be a ‘spiritual engagement,’ and because that’s the case there is no specific requirement in how you engage.”

Barlow says people can choose to engage with dancing or traditional songs or even with a conversation with a stranger. What matters most is to be present and be open to whatever experiences may be available.

One of the traditions that will be highlighted at the Pow Wow is Native dancing. This year, Orrion Snyder (Diné) has been selected to be the head man dancer. It’s an honor he accepts with great humility and great seriousness.

“Out of all the dancers within this valley they could have picked to represent this community, they chose me–a college senior here at the U,” Snyder said. “They gave me this honor to represent not only the institution but also the community here.”

He said events like the Pow Wow are meant to bring people together as one, which makes it meaningful for Native Peoples and everyone in the community.

“It’s important for us to have these spaces for all of us, not just some of us,” Snyder said.