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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 4 , 2002 - Issue 60


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Dancing With Pride

by Betsy Cohen of the Missoulian
Photo by Suzanne Westerly
It's been a yearlong journey for a core group of Indian students at the University of Montana, but their exhaustive mission ends this weekend in a glorious celebration.

Drums will thunder and fancy shawls will twirl in time to fancy footwork at the 34th annual Kyi-Yo Powwow, one of the oldest student-organized powwows in the nation.

"It's just been crazy," said Natasha Pipe, a UM student who has attended to the minute details of the event as president of UM's Kyi-Yo Native American Student Association.

"I've helped out before, but this year I really understand what a task it is," she said. "It's like a full-time job, and for all of us, we have to do all of the planning around our class times."

"We have been waiting for this weekend for so long," she added, "we are so glad it is finally here."

Despite the massive effort it has taken for the 15-member crew to plan the event for thousands of people, schedule 50-some events and powwow competitions, attract 900-plus dancers and dozens of drumming groups from around the nation, the effort has culminated in a deep sense of accomplishment and pride, the student organizers said.

"It's an honor to coordinate this and bring the campus, visitors and community members together to celebrate and have a good time," Pipe said.

"And just making it aware in the Missoula community that natives are here," said Pipe whose tribal heritage is Chippewa-Cree. "And to showcase that pride.

"We all want to carry on to give some justice to this, and hopefully build on a larger powwow each year."

"It's a big production," said Jennifer Stiffarm, secretary of the Kyi-Yo student association.

"I'm really excited for this powwow, because I think we are going to have a lot more people than we have," said Stiffarm who is Gros Ventre and Chippewa.

There's extra excitement in the air for Stiffarm, because the UM sophomore's 2-year-old son, Loren, will dance in the tiny tot competition.

They have been preparing for the big event by doing what they do most days.

"We listen to powwow music all the time," Stiffarm said. "He likes to dance. And my whole family is coming down from Bainville."

What sets this powwow apart from the other 33 powwows before is that this year two UM students have been asked to be the head male dancer and the head female dancer. It's an honor normally reserved for the best male and female dancers in the adult dancing categories, Pipe said.

"The Kyi-Yo committee thought that this year it would be cool to get some student representation in there," she explained.

Alden Spoonhunter and Vina Little Owl will represent UM's Indian students throughout the weekend.

"The honor is great," said Little Owl who is Gros Ventre. "It is a privilege to represent Kyi-Yo as head woman dancer."

Little Owl said she also believes this year's powwow will be the biggest one ever.

"Many of my friends along the powwow trail have already contacted me and are really excited for it," she said. "I have friends from all over Indian Country who are coming, mostly from Canada. They said they would come. I'm just waiting to see. They said they wanted to come and support the powwow and support me as head woman dancer."

Little Owl said her main duty as a head dancer will be to encourage all the other dancers competing in the powwow, particularly women dancers, to participate in all the events.

Of all the weekend's events, Little Owl said she is most excited about the Iron Women Special. The event is an endurance competition for women who dance in a spontaneous style that is inspired by traditional dance steps.

"The women represent a butterfly with their shawls, and there is lots of spinning and fast, fancy footwork," she said. "It's a great audience event, where audiences really get into it."

For Little Owl, the weekend is a time of renewing cultural ties, and educating the non-Indian world about Montana's rich Indian culture.

The Kyi-Yo Powwow, she said, is an opportunity for the non-Indian community to learn a little more about this state's and this country's hidden history.

"I think in general most Americans are just now getting introduced to Native Americans and a lot of Americans don't know about Indian life," she said.

Her opinion, she said, comes from her experience with other UM students who ask her about her background.

Like all good education, learning comes by doing and seeing, to which Little Owl adds:

"I'd like to invite the whole Missoula community to check out the powwow and come and take in the experience of watching our Native American dance styles. Everyone is welcome."

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