Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

ISH and OMA commemorate Indigenous Peoples' Day with powwow and lecture

By MIN-SEO KIM | October 12, 2021

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COURTESY OF MIN-SEO Kim

For many Indigenous peoples, events like powwows are a way to both reclaim and celebrate their cultures which were historically suppressed.

This year marked the first time a U.S. President officially recognized Oct. 11 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as well as the first time Baltimore City formally celebrated the holiday. 

Hopkins has been celebrating the day for four years, with Indigenous Students at Hopkins (ISH) and the Office of Multicultural Affairs (OMA) commemorating the day by hosting a powwow. A powwow is a ceremony that brings various Indigenous tribes together to celebrate and honor their cultures through dance and music.

President of ISH and junior Garryn Bryant, member of the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and descendant of the Cheyenne and Choctaw Nations, explained the importance of powwows for Indigenous peoples across the country.

“Powwows hold a lot of different meanings, everything from welcoming another tribe to weddings to celebration of cultures to different holidays and festivals,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter. “It’s a time when we come together and we truly celebrate our culture, honor our ancestors and preserve our ways of life and traditions.”

Bryant mentioned that these traditions hold even more significance given the fact that for much of American history, the government actively attempted to suppress and outlaw Indigenous traditions and languages, leading to immense cultural erasure. Powwows and other practices like them, she added, prove crucial to reclaiming and celebrating these customs.  

Sophomore Jeremy Giles, events and marketing chair for ISH, agreed, stating that the event also served to clear up some misconceptions about Indigenous peoples in an interview with The News-Letter.

“I think Indigenous cultures are often wrongly associated with the past, something that ‘has been,’” he said. “So I think it’s cool to have a celebration that shows that it is something in the present and very alive and exciting.” 

The event began with the Grand Entry, a parade where dancers from all the native tribes present are led onto the dance grounds by head dancers. They then performed a variety of other dances to a steady drumbeat, such as the Men’s Traditional Dance, Men’s Fancy Dance, Men’s Grass Dance, Women’s Traditional Dance, Women’s Jingle Dress Dance, Women’s Fancy Shawl Dance and social dances.

During one of the dances that commemorated the many Indigenous peoples who served and continue to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces, Dennis Zotigh, the emcee of the event and a museum cultural specialist for the Smithsonian Natural Museum for the American Indian, drew attention to the crucial role Indigenous peoples have played in defending the United States.

“At this time, we are honoring our warriors, those who have served to defend our country and those who are currently serving. A long time ago, we had ceremonies, ceremonies that enhanced the role of ‘protector,’” he said. “Today, we carry this warrior tradition on. American Indians per capita have volunteered higher than any other American race to protect their country.” 

Zotigh further reiterated that he hoped the audience would see that Indigenous cultures are not only alive and vibrant, but also very much a key component of the fabric of American society.

In an interview with The News-Letter, international student and sophomore Natalia Stefanska explained that as a non-American, she wished to learn more about the country she’s taking classes in.

“I am not American, I am Polish and I thought it would be really great to learn more about the culture of America, the culture of the place I decided to come [to] to learn more about,” she said.

Sophomore Amira Rady noted that she decided to attend the event out of a sense of solidarity in an interview with The News-Letter

“I think as a Latina supporting our community and being here I just find it enjoyable. I like to see the visibility and the representation here and it’s fun,” she said. “Honestly, our cultures share a lot through dance and the clothing that we wear.”

Freshman Olivia Hatcher expressed appreciation that an event like this was hosted on campus.

“I think it’s so valuable to have this kind of event on campus,” she said in an interview with The News-Letter. “I didn’t know where it would be when I started going and I was surprised it was right here, and something about that just makes me happy – seeing people here to experience this makes me happy.”

Additionally, ISH and OMA hosted a lecture by Dennis E. Seymour to dispel some myths and popular misconceptions of Indigenous peoples. Seymour is a former dean emeritus of the Community College of Baltimore County School of Business, Criminal Justice and Law. 

Seymour discussed how the so-called “industrial schools” painted as a way to give “marketable skills” to Indigenous peoples often acted as a method of attempting to erase their cultures, such as preventing Indigenous children from wearing traditional hairstyles or clothing. These schools were also characterized by appalling conditions.

Seymour pointed to one particular case where Indigenous students had to wear the clothing of European colonizers.

“[The Indigenous students] had to dress up as pilgrims during pageants,” he said. “If that wasn’t bad enough, [the school leaders] actually had them dress up as Spanish conquistadors.”

As a result, Seymour observed, Indigenous peoples had to practice their cultural customs in secrecy, a task made somewhat easier since European settlers and Indigenous peoples usually lived in separate communities due to strict racial separation laws. For example, Seymour stated that Indigenous people were only allowed into a settlement on Mondays to shop for goods.

Furthemore, Seymour pointed out that only 20% of Indigenous peoples live on reservations today and that in many cases, tribes don’t have enough land for a reservation.

However, Seymour did note that despite all the hardship, there is hope for Indigenous peoples.

“Here’s the good news: We’re still here. 2010 had 58,600 [Indigenous peoples in Maryland] and 2000 had just over 39,000, a 53% increase,” he said.   

Bryant stated that ISH has more events planned to increase awareness.

“We also have [Native American] Heritage Month next month and we will have more events than we can count,” she said. “In spring, we’re hoping that we [can] do a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s March. We’re working with the University on representation projects.”

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