Bringing diversity to the forefront: Bemidji State Council of Indian Students hosts 50th powwow event
The ringing of drums and jingle of dresses filled the Bemidji State Gymnasium once again on Saturday as the Council of Indian Students held its 50th powwow event.
BEMIDJI — The ringing of drums and jingle of dresses filled the Bemidji State Gymnasium once again on Saturday as the Council of Indian Students held its 50th powwow event.
After not being held for two years due to coronavirus restrictions and then scaled back to a round dance event in 2022, this year marks the 52nd year of events put on by the Council of Indian Students, but the 50th actual powwow.
“Last year we were still under some COVID restrictions because we had to follow Minnesota State guidelines,” said Chrissy Downwind, vice president for American Indian student success and campus diversity officer. “So that’s why we held a round dance rather than a powwow. This year with all those restrictions lifted we were able to have a full-blown event.”
Folks came from near and as far away as Manitoba and Ontario, North and South Dakota, Wisconsin, and even Oklahoma for the resumed annual tradition on April 29, with hundreds in attendance.
Red Lake drum group Little Bear kicked things off with a grand entry ceremony at noon, followed by a flag song and an honor song to recognize the Honor Guard members and tribal royalty participating in the event.
A variety of dances were held throughout the afternoon with a feast served around 4:30 p.m. followed by a second grand entry at 6 p.m.
The tradition holds a lot of meaning for Council of Indian Students President Justin Keezer, who is a BSU junior majoring in business management and entrepreneurship.
“This powwow has been going on since even before the Freedom of Religion Act,” he explained. “It wasn’t until around the 70s that the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe was able to even have a powwow, before that if you had a powwow or any type of ceremony you could get arrested and go to jail.”
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978, protecting the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.
“It was significant, the first one,” Keezer detailed, “because the Council of Indian Students at the time wanted to have a powwow and it was the other students who stood up with them and said, ‘We want to back this and we want to do this,’ so even before it was legal to have they’ve been having powwows at Bemidji State.”
As a nontraditional student, Keezer spent 17 years as an EMT and wildland firefighter before coming to BSU. During his time at the college, he has been actively involved in helping bring non-Native and Native American communities together and feels events such as the powwow help do just that.
“We’re just here trying to bridge the differences between people and bring folks in to see what it is that we do and be able to enjoy a little taste of it themselves,” he said.
An attitude of gratitude
Saturday also marked a special day for BSU and Northwest Technical College President John Hoffman.
“This is the first powwow my wife Joy and I have been to since we moved here to Minnesota, and so this is very, very special to us,” Hoffman said.
He also mentioned during his welcome to those in attendance how even though it was being thought of as BSU hosting the powwow, he looks at it a little differently.
“I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude today, you talk about Bemidji State hosting but the reality is that we know we are being welcomed here as guests,” he said. “For Joy and me to live here and to be in this space and be welcomed as guests means so much to us…Gratitude is the word that is filling me today.”
He added how proud he is of the student leadership he has seen in bringing the event to life.
“There is so much leadership for this event that came from our students,” Hoffman added. “They are doing finals this coming week and so for them to come and put all this time and energy into this powwow just says a lot about their commitment.”
Downwind also expressed her gratitude and thankfulness for what Hoffman has brought to this year’s event and the future of the Council of Indian Students.
“Hoffman has done a lot to really turn things around and bring diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront, and that is something that BSU has really struggled with for a lot of years,” she said. “I’m really excited for the future of our students and where we are going as a university.”
She explained how before this year, CIS has raised money and covered the costs of the powwow 100%. But when Hoffman came on board, he felt that students shouldn’t have to fundraise for an event that the university is also benefiting from.
“Hoffman said, ‘I’m stepping up and we’re taking care of it.’ So the powwow is 100% funded through the President’s Office at BSU for this year, and I just got word that it will remain that way from now on,” Downwind said.
She added that the funds go toward small honorariums for the emcee, staff and the visiting dancers and singers that come from out of town, helping to cover things like gas and food. Other costs include sound equipment and food for the evening feast, which on Saturday consisted of frybread hot dogs, baked beans and chips provided by Chubbys Original Food Stand.
Vendors were also able to rent booth spaces to sell crafts and other items, with funds going to the Council of Indian Students.
“Just for Hoffman to come in as our president and step up and see the importance of BSU acknowledging this event and actually helping the students fund the event, that’s huge because for 50 years they haven’t had that support,” Downwind said. “So for them to have that support this year, that’s a really big deal.”
A Native American focus
Downwind detailed how the simple fact that this is BSU’s 50th powwow event says a lot about the university and its support for the American Indian community.
“Because 50 years ago our religion and culture were against the law still,” she said. “So for the administration, staff and faculty at BSU and Minnesota State to go out on a limb and support its students in hosting a cultural event such as a powwow speaks volumes.”
Downwind recently became the first American Indian woman to hold a vice president position at a four-year university within the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities. She served as executive director of the American Indian Resource Center since January 2020 and was elevated to the role of vice president for American Indian student success and campus diversity officer on April 24.
Within this role, she is still leading the charge at the AIRC, just with a new title and in a newly-expanded capacity.
“As a student here I sat on many committees working to get a space to help recognize our own identity as Native Americans,” Downwind said. “And that’s something that we are still really truly trying to hold on to.”
Even with a 20% drop in overall enrollment at the university, Downwind is encouraged by the consistent increase they have seen in Native American students enrolling and graduating in the past several years.
“American Indian enrollment has increased 10% every year since COVID started, and a lot of that I think has to do with the accessibility of being able to do more classes online,” she said. “This year is one of our largest graduating classes with around 66 Native students graduating from BSU and 22 from NTC.”
She said that when she began working at the college in 2019 there were a little over 200 students who identified as Native American and now they are at 455 students.
“And that’s self-identified, so we know we have some that are not self-identified in the system all because of one little box not being checked,” she added. “So we are working on getting some of those things fixed to better represent our numbers.”
The Council of Indian Students consists of four officers and any number of council members, who facilitate events and activities at BSU throughout the year. Anyone interested in joining or learning more about the council can do so at the American Indian Resource Center or on BeaverLink.