Popular Powwow Celebrates Native American Presence at Stanford University

Updated Sep 5, 2012

When Maija Cruz’s mother arrives at Stanford University this week, it will mark not only her first campus visit but also enjoying a long-shared tradition connecting them to their American Indian roots.

The annual, student-run Stanford Powwow, which takes place Friday through Sunday, draws more than 300 dancers in full regalia from around the country and Canada and celebrates the respective cultures of the 300-plus Indian students on campus. For the latter, the occasion is as significant as Homecoming or Parents Weekend for the rest of the student body, and many of their families travel from afar for the festivities.

“My mom hasn’t seen the campus since the day she dropped me off for freshman year,” says Cruz, a junior from Milwaukee, Wis., and Powwow co-chair. “Among my Native friends here, it’s very common for their parents to come out for Powwow and graduation.”

Competitive and exhibition dances accompanied by drumming and singing make up the heart of Powwow, which Stanford students have held every year since 1971. It attracts crowds of more than 35,000 among the general public from the surrounding Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.

Because top performers win prize money, the Stanford Powwow is a popular stop on the so-called powwow circuit, Cruz says. The national circuit consists of powwows sponsored by tribal nations, college student groups, and other Native American organizations that allow individuals of different tribal affiliations to dance competitively.

Some people earn a living traveling from one event to the next to perform. Stanford sophomore and Powwow co-chair Layton Lamsam has relatives in Kansas who “know people who drive all the way from the Midwest” for Stanford Powwow.

For some Indian students, the Powwow is one of the incentives in picking Stanford over other colleges because its longevity and popularity are proof, they say, of the institution’s commitment to diversity and supporting them.

Lamsam, an Osage from Pawhuska, Okla., says Stanford’s Powwow “really influenced” his college choice. His tribe does not hold powwows but In’lon’schka, a series of ceremonial dances more formal than, and featuring more protocol than, the dances common to powwows, which tend to be more social events.

For instance, Lamsam was not permitted to dance until he was 17, when his family acknowledged him becoming a man. Growing up, he watched dances until he was 17. Held every June, Osages overwhelmingly return home for In’lon’schka “because it’s the one holiday we don’t miss,” he says. But Stanford’s academic quarter means final exams occur in June, conflicting with In’lon’schka.

“I decided to put my energy into (Stanford) Powwow and other” Native American extracurricular activities for four years, says Lamsam, a biology and pre-med major.

Ironically, the origins of Stanford’s Powwow lie in Native student protests and complaints of an insensitive campus climate, according to school officials.

In 1970, Native students petitioned for the removal of the school mascot, an Indian caricature they found offensive for its clumsy dance movements.

To counter that image and illustrate the diversity of tribal nations, the students held a powwow in 1971. To demonstrate the wide spectrum of dances, they performed some that featured dramatic spins and leaps, others that emphasized intricate footwork, and still others that focused on shoulder, arm and head movements. Not only was the powwow widely attended by non-Native students and faculty, but Dr. Richard Lyman, then-Stanford president, dropped the Indian mascot the following year.

Buoyed by the success of the first powwow, students continued holding them year after year with support from the administration. Their activism and calls for more ethnic-focused amenities also paved the way for the eventual establishment of Stanford’s Native American Cultural Center, Indian-targeted student services, and Muwekma-Tah-Ruk, a Native American residential theme house that derives its name from the Muwekma Ohlone people who formerly inhabited the land where the campus sits.

“The Native community here is very attractive to me,” says Lamsam. “It seems to culminate every year in Powwow.”

The outdoor event also features more than 100 food booths and vendors selling Indian goods such as handmade jewelry, blankets and clothing, music, art, pottery and other crafts and beaded purses, wallets and accessories. Some vendors return annually, although student organizers keep a long list of hopefuls on a wait list, Cruz says.

With a $120,000 budget, student organizers work nearly year-round, handling tasks like fundraising, Native American alumni relations, security, camping arrangements, publicity and vendor agreements.

Cruz began attending powwows with her mother in the Midwest when she was a toddler. Her mother wanted them to connect with their Ojibwe tribe through powwows because she had been adopted and raised by a White family and therefore did not have a strong sense of Indian heritage, Cruz says.

At Stanford, she and Lamsam are proud to help carry on a tradition they say cements bonds among the student body as a whole.

“This gets people thinking about issues affecting Indian Country,” Lamsam says, “and that’s a positive thing.”