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‘We aren’t as divided as we think’: Powwow and Indigenous Cultures Festival educates, brings communities together

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Hundreds of people gathered at the Lied Center Saturday for the annual First Nations Students Association (FNSA) Powwow and Indigenous Cultures Festival.

The festival was filled with activities for people of all ages, including dance contests throughout the day, educational lectures, story time with elected officials and more.

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Outside of the Lied Center, many booths were set up so that Indigenous artists and artisans could sell their work.

Hannah Wahwassuck (Prairie Band Potawatomi) was one of the people selling their art or other products at the festival. Wahwassuck graduated from Haskell Indian Nations University in December, gave birth to her son, and then started her own makeup line, Han’s Honey — including eyeshadow palettes, eyelashes, homemade lip gloss and more — just a few weeks later.

“I’m trying to get myself to be the next Indigenous Mary Kay,” she said proudly as she described her recent efforts to get her products on the shelves of stores.

Wahwassuck’s cousin, Juliet Kellar (Prairie Band Potawatomi), was helping her out at the booth. She said she was excited to see such a large turnout at the festival, especially because it’s the first in-person powwow since 2019.

“I personally love it because from everything that Natives have been through, we out here, we selling stuff, we coming back,” she laughed. “And with COVID, there hasn’t been a powwow, and that’s been really hard for a lot of people. It’s nice to see the community interested in coming to stuff like this.”

One of the highlights early in the day was Kansas Rep. Christina Haswood (Diné) reading “Sofia Valdez, Future Prez” on the main stage of the Lied Center, surrounded by children sitting on cushions designed to look like logs.

Emma Bascom / The Lawrence Times Kansas Rep. Christina Haswood, of Lawrence, reads to an audience at the KU First Nations Student Association Powwow and Indigenous Cultures Festival, April 9, 2022 at the Lied Center.

As she read, Haswood interacted with the kids, occasionally giving them advice related to the story — “Sometimes you have to ask questions and question the system,” she told them. She certainly got some of her young constituents excited when she joked about implementing a Department of Cheese in Lawrence, like in the book.

“I thought this was really good because we need more women in politics and to encourage younger people to get involved in civic engagement, and I thought this story perfectly (encapsulated) that,” Haswood said. 

Haswood was born and raised in Lawrence, and she has been participating in powwows and other events since she was young.

“Since Lawrence is kind of like a melting pot with Haskell, I learned how to powwow dance, and it just kept me in touch with my culture,” she said. “So it’s really nice to see so many community efforts and everyone getting the word out these past couple of weeks to come and help us celebrate.” 

Haswood was excited to work with the young Indigenous people of Lawrence during the festival because it showed her that “they are feeling more appreciative of their culture.”

“I grew up being embarrassed of my culture, but I think the times are changing, and we’re embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion, so I’m happy to be playing a small part of that,” she said.

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Haswood also discussed how these kinds of educational events help the community, specifically mentioning local Indigenous consultant and historian Jancita Warrington’s (Menominee, Prairie Band Potawatomi and Ho Chunk) lecture about the history of powwows and powwow etiquette.

“It’s really great that people are taking an interest, but also taking that … conscious step to not be offensive,” Haswood said. “I feel like people that are non-Native kind of feel intimidated a little bit about powwows, so the more we can do to help meet them where they’re at and (help) them feel more welcome that they can enjoy our culture the way that we do, too, (the better).”

Nathan Ham Photography via Jancita Warrington Jancita Warrington

Warrington’s lecture in the Lied Center Pavilion, which began when the festival started at 11 a.m., was packed, with many people standing around the room to listen. She said she was “elated” to see so many people “because it’s very, very much needed.” 

“To have the ability to control that narrative, I think is very important, without being overwhelming and causing a disconnect, but engaging them in a way and actually teaching them the way that we would want to be taught by somebody else about another culture,” Warrington said. 

She said she believes this education helps break down stereotypes and fosters a “new kind of appreciation” for Indigenous cultures. She mentioned that, sometimes, people tend to stay away from events that are not of their culture because they worry about intruding or being insensitive. 

In the lecture, Warrington emphasized that no question was an ignorant one, and worked to educate the audience so they would feel comfortable attending the evening powwow — the largest event, and the one that would close the festival.

“We aren’t as divided as we think we are. We all like saying we all live in the same community here, and this isn’t a reservation, it says Lawrence. It’s one of the things that we pride ourselves in, is having culture and having community here,” Warrington said. “I’m so happy to see that many people because I think as they then go to the powwow, they have a different understanding and they’re more likely to engage and participate because they feel welcome, but also they understand a little bit of what’s going on.”

A large part of Warrington’s lecture was educating her audience on powwow etiquette. Sometimes, she said, people view powwows as a performance, and they think it’s OK to touch the dancers’ regalia or hair. 

“All of us still learn along the way. … I think that even when people do things or say very ignorant things, I’m just like, ‘OK, well, great, this is my opportunity to educate them. This is my opportunity to sit down with them and explain why that’s not this or that or why that could be harmful or hurtful.’” 

She said that, half the time, people don’t realize they’re being offensive “because they had a poor public school education and that’s what they were taught.”

“To educate and to engage, but in a good way, goes a long way as in our community,” Warrington said.

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Warrington said she is happy that the festival is continuing to grow in such a capacity, and she believes the educational component that the festival offers has a lot to do with that.

“The more and more that it grows, it just tells me that the community is receiving this and wants to know this, which makes all the hard work worth it.” 

KU Student Body President Niya McAdoo was a volunteer at the festival, and said they have been working with others all year to figure out how Student Senate can support the festival.

“I realize how important this is to our community, especially our Indigenous community on campus and in Lawrence in general,” McAdoo said. 

McAdoo said she wanted to volunteer partially because they thought it was important to “just witness and be a part of this community.”

“I think it’s really important, especially for us living in a plains state to recognize that there is a very rich Indigenous history here, communities are still here,” McAdoo said. “So, just being able to continue to see these traditions and these cultures continue on despite colonialism and the efforts to take that away, I think is really important, and it’s just great to be here.”

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Emma Bascom (she/her), reporter, can be reached at ebascom (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here.

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