Forrest Cox
(Forrest Cox)

University of Michigan’s Dance for Mother Earth Powwow Returns After Battle Over Repatriation

Brenda Austin
3/18/13

After a four-year, sometimes contentious absence, the 41st Annual Dance for Mother Earth Powwow will return to the Crisler Center on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor this April. The contest pow wow, one of the largest university pow wows in the country, is held to honor Mother Earth for what she provides her people and highlights the beauty and vibrancy of American Indian traditions. According to a 2011 USAToday.com article, the annual Ann Arbor pow wow is one of the “10 great places to be wowed by American Indian culture.”

Ann Arbor has been kicking off pow wow season in grand style for decades with intertribal dancing, popular contests, dancers in bright regalia, drums from around the country and tiny tot exhibitions to delight both kids and adults alike. However, trouble began to take shape in 2008—although an estimated 8,000 people attended that year’s pow wow, there were 1,300 seats roped off and deliberately kept empty. This was a symbolic protest, with the empty seats representing the remains of 1,600 tribal ancestors and 16,000 funerary objects kept in storage by the university. Those empty seats were part of a peaceful, subtle and educational protest organized by the Native Graduate Student Caucus.

The following year, amid much controversy and media attention, the pow wow was moved off-campus. According to Native American Student Association co-chair Forrest Cox, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, a senior graduating this year from the university’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy with a minor in Native American studies, there was more than one reason for that move. The university was remodeling the event space at the Crisler Center in 2009, which essentially squeezed out the student-run event. The more publicized reason for the relocation, Cox says, was the ongoing protest of the university’s refusal to repatriate ancestral remains and artifacts.

Grass Dancers and drummers at the UM pow wow (Forrest Cox)Tensions eased considerably in 2010 however, as the school started the slow process of returning artifacts and remains to tribes in Michigan who claimed them for reburial. “The University of Michigan is making good progress in meeting both the letter and the spirit of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. In July of 2013, we will complete the full re-inventory of our collections of human remains and funerary objects from sites in Michigan and we have already been working with a variety of tribes to transfer them under [act] guidelines,” David R. Lampe, executive director for strategic communications at Michigan’s Office of the Vice President for Research, said in late February.

Last year’s pow wow was not far from the Crisler Center, which was undergoing some major renovations, at Pioneer High School—the closest place to campus that could comfortably handle the more than 2,500 people who packed the gymnasium. This year Cox is anticipating a crowd of about 5,000 to pack the Crisler Center for the pow wow’s homecoming.

Although Cox was not a student when the pow wow was originally moved off-campus, his commitment to seeing it return to campus comes from a picture hanging on the wall in the student union where he eats lunch each day. “Along a wall over some booths across from the eatery are pictures of Hillary Clinton and Michigan alum James Earl Jones—and among those famous faces is a picture of the Ann Arbor pow wow, of a traditional woman dancer during grand entry, showing her regalia, with other dancers behind her,” says Cox.“I always looked at that picture and said we had to bring the pow wow back.”

Members of the student association worked hard to bring the pow wow back. Isa Gaillard, a sophomore with Cherokee heritage, says he is looking forward to celebrating the pow wow’s return to campus in part because it will be his first pow wow.

Cox and Gaillard say the Native student association has worked hard the past three years to build a diverse group of people who care about the success of the pow wow. “In the student association there are folks interested in Native issues who have no relationship with being Native and there are also folks who have delved deep into their respective tribal culture,” says Cox. “There is a very broad and interesting intertribal mix of people on campus and that is shown in the intertribal setting of the pow wow as well.” He says that before the pow wow moved off campus four years ago, there was a community drum, and he would like to see that started back up.

“This pow wow is more than just the campus community,” he explains. “It’s the Ann Arbor community and it’s also the Detroit, Saginaw and southern Michigan pow wow, even reaching out into Canada and throughout the Midwest. It is the students committed to putting on the pow wow and answering e-mails and going to weekly meetings and meeting with groups to get people in the community and on campus inspired to help out in different capacities. It’s building those ties and creating friendships; it’s been a drive by the student association with more friends and support behind us each year.”

Cox says that with the university’s support and the student association’s fund-raising efforts they have enough money to give good prize money for the competition events this year.

“The members of the Native American Student Association at the University of Michigan are both thrilled and humbled by the opportunities that are brought forth in the returning of the Dance for Mother Earth Powwow back to campus. We hope to honor the intertribal diversity that is the essence of this pow wow, while striving to sustain a strong Native American heritage on campus and throughout the greater Ann Arbor area,” Gaillard says.

The Dance for Mother Earth Powwow is being held April 6 and 7 at the Crisler Center on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For more information, click here.

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Sandra Muse Isaacs's picture
Sandra Muse Isaacs
Submitted by Sandra Muse Isaacs on
I remember back in the early 70s when U of M had a glass display case with the skeleton of a Native person in it, wearing a feathered headdress. It was the ultimate insult and desecration of Indigenous people, and the Detroit Indian community took action. I was a teen then, but I remember going to many meetings up in Ann Arbor as various Native leaders (my father included) argued with the university administrators to take down that display and give the skeletal remains to the nearest tribe for reburial. The university finally took down the disgusting display, but we never heard what they did with the bones. It is incredible that U of M is only now returning the ancestors to their people.
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