Celebrating the Spirit of Powwow

“The New Faces of an Ancient People” powwow recently celebrated its tenth anniversary with music, dancing, food, and even a wedding ceremony.

Listening. Looking. Learning. Like most things in life, diversity is all about communication.

“The more time anyone spends with American Indian people,” John Sanchez said, “the more we get to know each other. And that leads to a stronger understanding of culture and heritage.” 

About 6,000 visitors enjoyed getting to know American Indians and experiencing some of their cultural traditions firsthand on the tenth anniversary of a two-day powwow titled “The New Faces of an Ancient People,” held April 6-7, 2013

Sanchez, an associate professor of communications with an emphasis in news media ethics, and his wife, Victoria Sanchez, assistant vice provost for educational equity, work tirelessly year-round to make sure every annual powwow in State College, Pennsylvania, is a great experience for participants, volunteers, and visitors. 

Powwow is a combination of honoring traditions and educating people, Professor Sanchez said. The primary goal as he sees it is for American Indians to gather and maintain their culture during powwow, no matter how far they may now live from their home cultures. 

"It is wonderful to see Native children take their first dance steps in the arena," Victoria Sanchez said, and watch children who visit the event interact and learn from their peers. 

“We have a chance to practice our traditions and speak our language,” John said, “and invite others to share our heritage and find out more about us.” 

The celebration of community serves the participants as well as visitors, who benefit from the educational aspect of the event. They learn about American Indian traditions through experiencing the sights, sounds, and spirit of powwow.

Victoria said that the powwow has grown into a tradition for American Indians as well as the local community, including American Indian children who have grown up with the event during the past ten years and many volunteers who have served some or all of that time.

"Over the years, the powwow has become the signature diversity event for Penn State and the State College Area School District," she said. "It has had a significant positive impact in the community." The University and the school district co-sponsor the event.

John said this year's powwow was one of the best ever, and "many who come year after year have said that in general it’s the best powwow they have been to.” 

American Indian in full headdress at powwow in State College, Pa.


An American Indian in full headdress at "The New Faces of an Ancient People" powwow in State College, Pennsylvania.

Image: Patrick Mansell

The powwow features drum music and songs, Native American dance and foods, and American Indian vendors showing and selling their arts and crafts.

Typically, the event draws about 150 volunteers, many of them teachers from area school districts, including State College Area, Bellefonte, and Bald Eagle Area. Volunteer duties for the event include set-up and take-down; working in the American Indian kitchen, helping to make traditional foods; and helping with errands, supplies, and facilities.

As for local visitors to the event, Victoria said: "In the first years of the powwow, it was such a new thing for this area that many people from the local community had no concept of what it was."

Many people thought the best time to attend was during the Grand Entry ceremony, she said. But now people understand that they can visit any time during the weekend and attendance is steadier.

John said that this year he was extremely pleased with the turnout for the entire weekend, "especially considering that we were having nice weather for the first time in months. Coming inside was hard for people with the sun shining out there!” 

But there was plenty of sunshine indoors for visitors. And once inside, they stayed. One of the featured ceremonies this year was a wedding, which is not common at powwows. Michelle Bixby and her fiance, Brandon Woelkers, traveled from upstate New York to State College to be married in a traditional ceremony on the first day of the event. 

“Can you imagine—that couple had about 4,000 people at their wedding,” Sanchez said with delight. “It was a good traditional experience for everyone and something rare to see.” 

About 150 dancers attended the event along with drummers and singers. John said that the greatest distance traveled he heard about was from Tuba City, Arizona, although he wasn’t sure if some traveled farther. People also came from New Mexico, Canada, and other American Indian communities throughout North America. 

“The more time anyone spends with American Indian people,” John Sanchez said, “the more we get to know each other. And that leads to a stronger understanding of culture and heritage.”

He said that a few American Indian high school students getting ready to choose colleges spent time at the powwow. “One wanted to go to Ohio State,” he said. “I talked with him for a long time, listening to him and what he was looking for, and telling him what he could expect here. After that long conversation, he now says he wants to come here.”

American Indians in full dress gather around a drum during a powwow.


A group at the powwow in State College, Pennsylvania, takes part in drumming, an important component of ceremonies and community in the American Indian tradition and heritage. 

Image: Patrick Mansell

Sanchez, who served as academic director of the American Indian Leadership Program when he taught at American University before coming to Penn State, said students like the one he spoke with this year have attended powwows over the years. They are thrilled with a cultural event that’s dedicated to promoting understanding of American Indians and celebrating traditions, in the same place they could be going to college.

He said that although there are very few American Indians at Penn State, “those of us who are here are very approachable, and that makes a difference to kids.”

When American Indian students visit University Park campus, John and Victoria Sanchez treat them like family.

“We want them to feel at home,” said John, whose tribal affiliation is Yaqui/Apache. He said that he wants American Indian students to know that Penn State is a place where they will have support and feel comfortable.

Sanchez, named a Freedom Forum Journalism Leadership in Diversity Fellow of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the Association of Schools of Journalism, sees the University as a much more diversified place now than it was when he began teaching here in 1996.

 “When I started here, I had one African American student in a whole class,” he said. Now in a typical classroom, he said, he has students from many ethnic backgrounds, including international students.

Penn State, unlike a lot of other universities, he said, is making progress. “Building diversity is really working here.” 


Education, the Media, and American Indian Identity

Who are American Indians—right here, right now, in contemporary times? 

A major aspect of Professor John Sanchez’s academic research is examining the American Indian identity in the twenty-first century and the ways the identity and the news media intersect, in words and images.

His research shows that for many people, the main way of learning and forming perceptions about the world is through television.

“Television becomes a huge teaching tool,” he says. “Even at very young ages, kids are watching shows and learning from what they’re seeing and hearing. You could say that learning from media really begins at birth.”

This is why stereotypes persist in people’s minds from childhood onward, he says.

Another major way for children to learn is through the public school system, Sanchez, an associate professor of communications, says, and he has conducted research about teachers and how they teach.

Teachers are regarded in a common way by all cultures, Sanchez says. People look to them for knowledge and hold them in high esteem. But problems occur, he says, because: “If teachers don’t know something, they can’t teach it.”

A study he conducted with teachers showed that stereotypes are still very much a part of people’s impressions of American Indians.

“You can ask a fourth-grade teacher about American Indians and you’re still probably going to get an answer that involves an eighteenth-century stereotype,” he says.

“And if you ask whether the teacher took a course in diversity, she might say, ‘Yes, I took ballroom dancing,’ or something that isn’t about diversity at all, but she thinks it is,” Sanchez says.

His solution? Require all teacher education students to take at least four full-semester courses in diversity in the following areas: African American studies, American Indian studies, Latino/Latina studies, and Asian studies.

Sanchez, whose tribal affiliation is Yaqui/Apache, says if this were to happen, perceptions may change over time. For example, communications students who learn early on from teachers with strong diversity awareness might become sports journalists who do insightful reporting about sports team mascots that are based on American Indian stereotypes, making people more sensitive to such issues.

A basic diversity awareness conveyed from teachers to students can lead to a clearer understanding of news media coverage of American Indians and change public perceptions, he says, working toward overall enlightenment for future generations.