Dartmouth Free Press
Dartmouth Powwow

Published in Issue 4.15

For the past 32 years Native Americans at Dartmouth (NAD) have sponsored a early May powwow celebration that draws as many as 1,500 people to Hanover. Held on the Green when weather permits and in one of the College’s athletic facilities when it does not, the event plays a key role in shaping what it means to be native at Dartmouth. It is also a captivating ceremony to non-Indian students and locals who are invited as audience members to take part during some elements of the gathering. This past Saturday, the 32nd annual Powwow stayed dry despite overcast skies and cool temperatures.


Set-up for the Powwow began at 6 a.m. on Saturday with the blessing of the grounds, a ritual designating the dance arena as a sacred space. But for Kim Alsenay ‘05 and many other students, the Powwow had already been eight months in the making.

“They got me working on it the moment I stepped on campus,” Melody Jones ‘07 recalled. For Jones, the weekend was especially important because her mother and sister had come from Colorado to visit and see the Powwow. Gilbert Littlewolf ‘07, of Montana’s Northern Cheyenne tribe, described his work as a part-time office assistant for the Native American Program, helping to coordinate contracts for the vendors, drum groups, arena officials, and other professionals who take part.

According to Alsenay, Powwow co-chair, and a White Mountain Apache from White Mountain, Arizona, the event is completely student-run and organized every year, including everything from fundraising to publicity to hiring of performers. In the weeks leading up to the big day, she had her hands full coordinating the evening community dinner, printing the popular Powwow T-shirts, arranging for Hanover Police and Safety & Security presence, and handling other last-minute logistics.

When the limousine arrangements for celebrity drummers Southern Boyz fell through late Friday night, Alsenay drove to Manchester to pick up the group at the airport. She returned to Hanover at 4:30 in the morning, picking up an 85-mph speeding ticket along the way, in time to catch an hour-and-a-half of sleep before the sunrise blessing.

But most of the crucial preparations had already been made by Josh Clause ‘05, who worked on this and two previous Powwows, but who is currently abroad on a foreign study program. Over email, Clause described the Powwow as “the pivotal event for the Native American community here at Dartmouth.” He said “it gives us a chance to educate people on our varied cultures and to make people aware of our existence.” He is presently co-chair of NAD, and a Mohawk member of the Six Nations Reservation in Niagara Falls, New York.

Native students learn about the Powwow even before they get to Dartmouth, during Dimensions weekend and the Native American Fly-in, when students from reservations across the West are recruited to campus. Brandon Ecoffey ‘06, an Ogalala Sioux from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, has seen three Powwows in Hanover, despite being only a sophomore. In addition to witnessing last year’s event, he attended twice as a prospective student: first during his junior year of high school, and again as a senior in high school.


Powwows began in the 19th century among Northern Plains Indians as ceremonial and celebratory events at the tribal level. Despite their modern origins, in most parts of the country they are an important part of today’s American Indian culture. The centerpiece of the modern powwow is the dance competition, in which contestants vie for cash prizes in categories such as Men and Women’s Traditional and Fancy, Women’s Jingle and Men’s Grass. Some powwows last as long as three or four days, with thousands of contestants and tens of thousands of onlookers.

Dartmouth’s day-long event is small in comparison to those held every summer in the Western United States, but still fulfills the role of dance competition and intertribal social occasion. As New England’s second largest powwow, it serves as a meeting point for native people from across northern New England. Ecoffey estimates that members of more than 50 tribes are present in Hanover for the Powwow each year. Seeing Indians from so many different places converge on the Green, he says, strengthens the school’s native community because it imparts “a sense of belonging that we don’t always get here at Dartmouth.”

All-male drum groups provide music for the dancers. This year, Mystic River Singers of Mashantucket, Connecticut hosted the Northern Drum, and Southern Boyz Singers, of Lawton, Oklahoma held down the Southern Drum. A group of native men at Dartmouth, including Ecoffey, drum together in a group called Occum Pond, performing on campus for special occasions. They were unsure whether they’d contribute to the drumming at Saturday’s Powwow, but in the end they came through, performing for several intertribal dances.

Most powwows have a standard order beginning with the Grand Entry. On Saturday, this was followed by a prayer invocation, the Veterans Song which honors all veterans of the U.S. armed services, and the Flag Song.


During the opening dances a member of the Mohegan Nation carried the Eagle Staff into the arena. This 8-foot totem, placed between the American and the Canadian flags at the front of the arena, was in its 12th year at the Dartmouth Powwow. The staff was donated during the 20th anniversary Powwow by Trudell Guerue ‘74, a Vietnam veteran and Lakota Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation. Its combination of eagle feathers, flag insignia, green, yellow, and red trim, and twenty-one Purple Heart pins honors the memory of the 21 Dartmouth alums who were killed in Vietnam.

Two members of the Class of 2002, Arvina Martin from Madison, WI, and Ross Caplett from Bozeman, MT, served as Head Woman and Head Man dancers leading most of the dances in and out of the arena.

Marvin Burnett, originally of the Sioux tribe on Rosebud Reservation, South Dakota, but now a resident of Nashua, was a celebrated dancer for many years before hanging up his regalia and picking up the emcee’s microphone. He has been master of ceremonies at Dartmouth’s Powwow for several years, and although pictures of him as a younger man in the Rauner archives are the only evidence of his dance career, he remains a force to be reckoned with over the loudspeaker.

Still spry, but with a slight stoop and large eyeglasses, Burnett wore a black Schemitzun commemorative jacket over brown denim jeans, and a tall top hat with emblems and totems of all kinds pinned to the dark felt. When he removed the hat during honoring songs, two gray braids fell on either side of his face. Burnett kept things moving with one joke after another, encouraging audience members to feel comfortable entering the arena for open songs. When a small boy won the male Indian Hip Hop dance-off, beating out a half-dozen more street-wise competitors and taking home $68 in prize money, Burnett cracked, “That’ll buy a lot of Tootsie Pops!”

With the exception of Ross Caplett, no Dartmouth male dancers appeared during the competitions. Performers who own expensive handmade regalia have difficulty transporting it to school. Ecoffey is a Men’s Traditional dancer—his father taught him to dance as a child—whose elaborate outfit includes a fragile feather bustle. He’s afraid to take it on the plane because it could be damaged, and won’t trust it to the mail.


By 6 p.m. the dance competitions had come to an end and a chill settled over the Powwow grounds. The sun disappeared behind thick clouds and many in the crowd packed up to head home. A couple dozen performers and their families, as well as die-hard fans and NAD students remained behind to hear the announcement of contest winners. Twenty-somethings who took home top prizes chatted, while a Men’s Traditional winner carried a sleepy daughter on his shoulder. In the junior categories, most of the champs shambled onto the field looking worn out, while the tiniest of them slept under a blanket. It had been a long day.

The Powwow is an opportunity for native families to come together and transmit skills and social knowledge from one generation to the next. Elders are honored for their wisdom and experience, and individuals who have provided exceptional service to the community are cherished. Native parents take the occasion to visit their children on campus, coming from as far away as Colorado, while families of spectators spend time sharing fry bread and pointing out their favorite dancers to each other.

Each year, the event provides NAD students with a common purpose and gives them a shared source of pride. It celebrates the education that students receive at Dartmouth, marking the closing of four years with an honoring song and public recognition of their achievement. Stanford sponsors a powwow, as do dozens of other universities around the country. At many of the annual programs, charitable activities such as college scholarships indicate the strong connection between powwows and institutions of higher learning.

The Powwow is also an important tradition for Dartmouth—one of only a half-dozen sanctioned events to take place on the Green each year. Through the veterans’ song, the round dance and several honoring songs, its organizers welcome non-natives to share in the ritual and celebration, providing an eye-opening experience for non-native students and local residents. Dance and drumming, as well as the folk art sold by vendors, enhance the area’s cultural offerings in ways that performances at the Hopkins Center, for example, cannot.

This year’s Powwow, like every one of its predecessors, revealed to outsiders the strength and beauty of Native American culture at Dartmouth. Although native students have no obligation to let the rest of us partake of the “good feelings,” their warmth and generosity is a blessing.

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