Celebration honors American Indian students

The powwow honored students who are receiving the Ethel Curry scholarship.

Mehgan Lee

Dressed in ceremonial attire, complete with headdresses, feathers and elaborate beadwork, a group of American Indian dancers moved to the thunderous, rhythm of drums at a powwow Friday in the St. Paul Student Center.

Approximately 200 people gathered to participate in or watch the eighth annual Ethel Curry Fall Welcome Feast and Traditional Powwow.

The powwow honored American Indian students who are receiving the Ethel Curry scholarship. It provides students with $3,000 a year in tuition assistance for four years. Currently, 12 American Indian students at the University receive it, including first-year Oglala Sioux student Robin White.

“It was a good way for me to come to college,” White said. “I probably wouldn’t have come without it.”

White’s mother, Jo White, said the scholarship is a financial blessing for her family. Jo White traveled from her home on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to attend the powwow.

“I came a 10-hour drive to see her be honored,” Jo White said.

The event also honors Curry, the scholarship donor. She graduated from the University in 1914 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and math.

Curry, who was not American Indian, willed $1 million to the University to be used for scholarships for American Indian students.

The powwow also honored the eight members of the University’s Council of Elders. The members provide counseling to American Indian students on campus.

American Indian students have a difficult time adjusting to college life, said Don Blackhawk, a member of the council and Ho-Chunk tribe.

“They go through such a culture shock at the beginning,” he said. “And it’s so much harder for (American) Indian students just coming from the reservation.”

Events such as the powwow can help them transition to campus life, said Peggy Flanagan, a University alumna and previous Ethel Curry Scholarship recipient.

“Events like this, where we support students academically as well as culturally, that equals success for Native American students,” said Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe.

Friday’s powwow began with a dinner of chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy. The scent of the feast lingered in the air as the powwow began.

Four drum groups played, singing along with their beat. Many dancers wore bells on their clothes or around their ankles, adding to the melody with each step, hop and turn.

Observers in the crowd tapped their feet along to the music and eagerly joined in the dance when the master of ceremonies invited them.

Participating in a powwow is spiritually uplifting, said Dennis Jones, a professor of Ojibwe language in the American Indian studies department.

“It’s a celebration of life,” he said.

Melissa Deer, a second-year medical student and member of the Menominee tribe, said the powwow was the first she has attended on campus.

“It celebrates our common heritage and traditions, and creates a sense of community for native students who attend here,” she said.