Seated in a circle, men chant lyrics and drum rhythms in remarkable unison, echoing ancestors who did the same thing centuries before. People of all ages wearing colorful shawls and headdresses march around them, socializing with one another while performing to spectators seated in folding chairs outside the circle.
This circle of friends is not closed. In fact, it is open to everyone.
Although powwows are typically held by individual tribes, they are a custom common to many Native Americans. Much like family reunions, powwows offer a place for people to appreciate one another’s company, their shared heritage and the things for which they are grateful. They reflect a tenet deeply embedded in Native American society — to welcome everyone so traditions can be passed through generations and kept alive.
The Native American Student Organization’s powwow Saturday was even more inclusive than usual, uniting Native Americans from tribes across Louisiana and Texas as well as University students. NASO is open to Native Americans and students who are interested in that culture, said NASO vice president Emily Stretcher, which reflects a desire to raise awareness of Native Americans’ value to society.
“We don’t want something that’s so much part of American history and Louisiana history to become extinct,” she said. “We want it to be passed on.”
The powwow marks the place where elders and children alike come together to teach and show what they have been taught. Saturday’s powwow kicked off around 10 a.m. with gourd dancing, which featured mostly older people. Next was the grand entry, led by a head man and head woman.
“They’re setting an example for everyone else,” said NASO president Skye Byrd. “No one dances before them. Once they start dancing, then everyone falls in behind them and dances.”
For the rest of the afternoon, everyone engaged in friendly dance competitions. Little girls dressed in glittering hot pink, purple and yellow shawls twirled and marched alongside their mothers and grandmothers. Men of all ages, and almost all wearing blue jeans, provided the beat from a shared drum.
Dance reflects life, Byrd said, which makes it a good medium for communicating with friends and family at powwows. The accompanying chants and drumbeats are an ideal backdrop because “music carries medicine and healing and language and traditions,” she said.
Not all of the music at a powwow comes from singers and drummers, however. Rolled Copenhagen snuff can lids are sewn onto many dancers’ regalia, making them jingle with every step.
Byrd, a member of the Coushatta tribe in Elton, La., said people usually make their own regalia or have relatives do it. Everything, including moccasins, is handmade — one way of putting to use the lessons taught by older members of their tribe.
Native Americans are not merely focused on preserving their own traditions, Byrd said. Many of the older people at the powwow were military veterans, symbolizing Native Americans’ dedication to their country. American, Louisiana and Prisoner of War flags were displayed alongside the NASO flag.
As the original inhabitants of America, Natives want to protect their customs, but also the country that came to be the United States, Byrd said. It is their home, and even though other ethnic groups have moved here in recent centuries, they maintain a deep desire to share everything with them.
Byrd said powwows mirror Native Americans’ hospitality and how much they care about other people. At the powwow Saturday, everyone — singers and spectators, old and young — was part of a large circle that excluded no one.
Everyone at a powwow is family, sharing in a unique tradition inseparable from a larger family — America.
“It’s not something that’s just for Natives, and it’s not something that shouldn’t be shared,” Stretcher said. “Natives, I feel, want to share their culture and I feel like it’s good to have this on campus so they do have that opportunity, especially at a place like LSU that has so many different people and is so big and it can be spread to everybody.”