Jennifer Burnett wasn’t really in touch with her American Indian heritage until she came to college.
Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, the biochemistry junior said her family has been off the reservation for so long, they’ve lost some of the native traditions, like speaking the Ojibwe language.
But Saturday, Burnett volunteered at the Welcome Back & Traditional Powwow at Coffman Union, sponsored by the University’s Council of Elders and the American Indian Dance Club.
She said American Indian cultural events like these have bridged the gap between her and the traditions she never practiced.
Diana Manuel , an officer of the American Indian Dance Club student group, said powwows started out as a way to honor returning warriors, but Saturday’s powwow was about education.
“One of our main intentions was not only to get everyone together,” she said, “but to get young children excited about higher education.”
Less than 1 percent of the University’s student population is made up of American Indians, according to the 2008 University Plan, Performance and Accountability Report.
Leaving their family and their home makes it difficult for many American Indians to decide to come to college, Manuel said.
She said having events on campus like the powwow shows younger American Indians that they can still participate in cultural activities when they come to college.
Trina Fasthorse , 11, danced in the powwow because she said it’s important to learn about her culture.
“A lot of kids get interested in gangs and violence and drugs,” she said. “They think it’s cool to skip everything and they don’t want to learn their language and their culture.”
Fasthorse said she plans to attend college as soon as she graduates high school.
The Council of Elders wants American Indians to continue with their education and then come back and use their knowledge to give back to the American Indian community, Manuel said.
Burnett, who plans on attending medical school, said she hopes the powwow dispelled stereotypical ideas about American Indian students.
“People think I get my education for free — I do not,” she said. “Or, they think I have an easier chance of getting into medical school because of affirmative action.”
For another way to connect with her culture, Burnett added Ojibwe to her class schedule.
“It’s helped me grow spiritually,” she said. “The Ojibwe language is a spiritual language.”
Both Ojibwe and Dakota were spoken during Saturday’s powwow, showing two native languages spoken by Minnesota tribes.
Educating others about the American Indian culture was another reason for putting on the powwow, Manuel said.
While traditional powwows don’t usually provide explanation packets, Manuel said the groups involved thought it was important to give audience members information about the different dances and powwow etiquette.
Holistic medicine first-year Allison Austin said although she is not an American Indian, she has always been fascinated with the culture and decided it would be fun to experience a powwow.
Austin, who is also taking Ojibwe this semester, said the American Indian community on campus has been eager to teach her about their culture — something she was only able to read about before college.
“It’s all new to me,” she said. “They are very accepting.”
Manuel said she was pleased with the turnout.
“I saw a lot of new faces, which is great,” she said.