Dozens of tents lined the edge of a dance arena drawn onto a UCLA athletic field in chalk. Under their cooling shade, grass dancers adjusted their roach headdresses, mothers braided their children’s hair before wrapping it in ribbons and the master of ceremonies enjoyed frybread and frozen lemonade.
For the next several hours, dancers and groups of drummers performed under the hot sun for the assembled audience – and the pow wow’s judges – on May 5 and 6.
Each spring, UCLA’s American Indian Student Association hosts a two-day pow wow, drawing hundreds of Native Americans from Southern California and beyond to UCLA’s North Athletic Field to celebrate their cultures and compete in different dance events.
For many Native Americans who live in urban areas, pow wows play a key role in preserving cultural practices and building community. At UCLA, organizers use the pow wow to introduce Native youth to campus and the cultural support available to Native students.
Valerie Cabral, a jingle dancer from Whittier, California, from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, has been going to pow wows since she could walk and attended the annual UCLA Pow Wow for the first time this year. Her grandfather moved from a reservation in North Dakota to the Los Angeles area following the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, a federal law that drove many Native Americans out of reservations and into urban areas with the intent of making them assimilate into the non-Native population.
Cabral learned to dance by watching other attendees, both in person and, she said with a laugh, on YouTube. While she visits North Dakota with her family each summer, dancing helps her feel connected to her culture when she’s at home in Whittier.
“It filled the hole in my heart,” she said.
Jingle dress, which originated with the Ojibwe in the early 1900s, is meant to heal those who cannot heal themselves, she said. The dance is characterized by crossed footwork close to the ground, with the jingles – small metal cones – on the dancer’s regalia providing a rhythmic tinkling. Cabral wore a sequined blue dress adorned with silver jingles as she danced in the teenage girl’s jingle dress competition at this year’s pow wow.
Now in its 33rd year at UCLA, the pow wow draws regulars, dancers trying out the smooth grass of the athletic field for the first time and people who drop in while walking around campus. Some have been going for as long as they can remember.
Tina Charley, a fourth-year American Indian studies student who was raised on the Navajo Nation reservation and in West Los Angeles, found a sense of belonging by attending and dancing in pow wows in the city. She started attending the UCLA Pow Wow when it was first held in 1985.
Charley said her parents worked to instill her Dine, or Navajo, identity in her from a young age. Other students in the Los Angeles schools she attended, however, would incorrectly categorize her as Hispanic or Filipino. It was only at pow wows that she found a community that truly understood her.
“In Southern California at that time, finding another person who understood my culture was rare,” she said. “Going to pow wows helped me find other people like me.”
The UCLA Pow Wow has another layer of significance for Charley. Native Americans have historically been shut out of opportunities to pursue higher education, she said, and still face institutional barriers on the path to college.
Today, only 10 percent of Native Americans across the country have earned bachelor’s degrees, compared to 43 percent of whites. At UCLA, only 0.5 percent of the student body is Native American, even though Native Americans make up 1.7 percent of California’s population. California is also the state with the largest population of Native Americans.
Growing up, the pow wow gave Charley the chance to meet UCLA students and find out what college was really like. It put her on a path to UCLA; Charley worked on campus as an administrative analyst for years. After her youngest child turned 16, she decided to start her undergraduate degree in American Indian studies.
“That’s when we discovered UCLA,” she said. “Higher education really wasn’t stressed to a lot of us Native kids. ... There wasn’t advocacy like there is now.”
Despite the lack of Native American students in higher education, many universities besides UCLA host pow wows. Until 2016, the largest pow wow in the country was held at the University of New Mexico. Stanford University, Arizona State University and Oklahoma State University also host prominent pow wows.
“It’s universities that are holding big pow wows, but it’s kind of sad ... because we’re not represented in higher education,” said Donald Salcedo, a third-year American Indian studies student and member of the Quechan Nation. “It’s the only time Natives are on campus and recognized by the universities.”
Like Charley, Salcedo grew up going to the UCLA Pow Wow. Salcedo’s family, which descends from the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, moved to Los Angeles under a relocation program in the 1960s.
“UCLA was it,” he said. “They had the best drummers come out, the best MCs. ... The UCLA Pow Wow is really inspiring and special to a lot of LA Indians because of the status of the university, and just the majesty (and) ... the beauty of it.”
Growing up, Salcedo helped put on the youth pow wow at the Southern California Indian Center and served as its MC, a role he continued to perform at various pow wows as he got older. He said an MC has to be entertaining enough to keep the pow wow going between contests and dances, and knowledgeable enough to introduce community members and explain dances and songs from many different tribes.
In 2011 and 2012, Salcedo MC’d the UCLA Pow Wow. Five years later, he transferred from Fullerton College to UCLA. After decades of attending and contributing to the pow wow, he now acts as its vendor coordinator.
“Coming to MC at (UCLA’s) pow wow before I was a student was such a drive to be a Bruin, because I was already a Bruin during the pow wow, and it just really made me want to be a student,” he said. “The one thing I wanted to do when I came to UCLA was to be on the (pow wow) committee and say I was a part of putting this on.”
For Salcedo and Charley, pow wows are a lifelong tradition, but they are not a part of every Native American culture. They evolved from drumming and dance ceremonies that began in the Great Plains area in the 19th century, spreading through the reservation system and into urban areas during the relocation programs of the mid-20th century.
LittleDove Rey, a fourth-year psychology student, is a member of the Miwok, Nisenan and Maidu tribes of Northern California, which hold Big Time ceremonies, not pow wows. The style of dance that Rey grew up with is completely different from the styles of dance performed at pow wows. For example, in Big Time ceremonies, women dance in a circle around an inner circle of men, whereas at pow wows, women and men usually dance separately.
Rey had danced her traditional style in pow wows twice before coming to UCLA. She said she learned a lot about the tradition when she first arrived and joined the American Indian Students Association, which organizes the pow wow each year.
The association also helped her adjust to attending a school with a small Native American population, she said. Rey grew up on the Auburn Rancheria in Northern California and attended a tribal school until eighth grade, and first experienced the culture shock she felt at UCLA when she started going to public high school.
“I was always immersed in my culture and never felt that lack of representation,” she said.
On her reservation, Rey was used to gathering materials for jewelry and basket making, or making dolls and canoes out of tulle. However, in Los Angeles, it became almost impossible to practice her culture because of the lack of available natural resources. Native Americans who live in urban environments often struggle with that problem, she said.
“I don’t know where I would be without AISA,” she said. “I don’t know what my retention as a student would be. I would feel extremely isolated and would struggle a lot.”
This year, Rey became the association’s president and helped coordinate the pow wow. The event is entirely organized by a student pow wow committee of between three and a dozen members, even though the pow wow is the second-largest student-organized event on the UCLA campus each year.
Rey said she wishes UCLA would provide more institutional support for the pow wow and simplify the funding process. Although the pow wow is in its 33rd year, AISA still has to go through an extensive funding application process each year, and even asks American Indian studies faculty to cover the shortfall in the amount it receives from UCLA, as well as other donations and gifts, Rey said.
“At this point, it doesn’t feel UCLA-supported,” she said. “The Stanford Powwow receives a lot of institutional support, and it just doesn’t feel like we’re there yet with UCLA.”
AISA ensures the pow wow itself emphasizes community members’ connection to UCLA and the importance of higher education for the Native community. The MC honors attendees who will be graduating from UCLA that year, wrapping each one in a fringed shawl.
“We make up 0.8 percent of college enrollment, but we have the highest need in all categories on the socio-economic ladder,” said MC Tom Phillips during this year’s pow wow. “College graduates can take their education back to their tribal communities and work in the hospital or on the tribal council.”
Perhaps the highest honor of the pow wow, the Ms. UCLA Pow Wow Pageant, is also an important tool to promote higher education. To enter the pageant, contestants must be enrolled at a university and hold at least a 2.5 GPA.
For the chance to wear the crown, contestants make speeches, dance at the pow wow, perform a traditional skill from their culture, such as singing or food preparation, speak about their tribal traditions and dress, write an essay and answer questions from a panel of judges. This year, former Ms. UCLA Pow Wow and alumna Nora Pulskamp spent more than 40 hours beading the image of a grinning Joe Bruin onto the crown.
During the year in which the winner holds the title, she travels to pow wows and other gatherings around the country to encourage Native students to go to UCLA.
Monica Jacome, the 2017-2018 Ms. UCLA Pow Wow, has been sharing her story with children around the country for the past year. In high school, a counselor discouraged her from applying to college, telling her she did not have the grades needed to get in. Her mother encouraged her to apply anyway, and she ended up graduating with honors from the University of San Diego. Jacome, who is Kumeyaay, also tells the children she meets about the UCLA Pow Wow because she said it helps them believe they belong at UCLA.
“If a college has a pow wow, you know it has a Native backing,” she said. “You know it’s not going to be just you among thousands of students; you’ll have others just like you.”
The night before the 2018 pow wow began, the judges evaluated the two contestants on their speeches, responses to questions and presentation of traditional skills in the James West Alumni Center.
Taylor Brooks, a first-year pre-psychology student at UCLA, stepped onto the low stage to sing a song from the Lakota Sun Dance tradition. As her high, clear voice faded from the room, she explained that Sun Dance songs are a way to give back to the Creator.
Brooks grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which she described as “a bubble.” Since coming to UCLA, she has started visiting reservations in Southern California with AISA’s American Indian Recruitment program to encourage Native students to pursue higher education.
“Being here exposed me to so many different cultures and tribes,” she said. “It reminds me that we’re all one people, living on Turtle Island, and we all come from the same Creator.”
For her skill presentation, Autumn Brown, a third-year student at California State University, San Marcos, demonstrated how her people, the Kumeyaay, use different baskets and stones to make acorn mush. She began by sorting the acorns – “You don’t want to use the black ones; those are disgusting,” she laughed – and showed how to sift the mush through different baskets before plating the final product, which she said is best enjoyed as a side dish alongside meat or berries.
Brown, a psychological science and American Indian studies student, helped secure American Indian studies as a department at CSUSM, in part to build connections between Native and non-Native communities and educate the latter about the culture of the original inhabitants of San Diego County, where the university is located.
“I always try to share my culture and let people know we’re still here,” she said. “All the efforts to wipe us out didn’t work.”
The next day, Brooks waited at the edge of the arena to begin a Sun Dance, clad in a hot pink dress representing the traditional buckskin dresses Lakota women wore when buffalo were still accessible as a source of clothing. At the MC’s signal, she launched into the arena, crossing and uncrossing her feet in high steps and waving the yellow shawl draped around her back between her outstretched arms.
Brown performed a Kumeyaay Bird Dance, which recreates stories from the tribe’s history and cosmology. Her full, patterned skirt waved over her feet as she jumped from side to side with her arms held out in front of her waist.
As the sun began to set over the field, 2018 MC Tom Phillips called the Ms. UCLA Pow Wow judges and the two contestants to stand at the edge of the arena. They addressed the crowd in Kumeyaay and Lakota before repeating their speeches in English.
After a short drumroll, the judges announced Brown as Ms. UCLA Pow Wow 2018-2019. One of the judges awarded her the glittering, beaded crown, which she will wear for the next year to represent UCLA at pow wows around the country.
As Brown and Brooks walked around the arena, shaking hands with attendees, Phillips recalled how Jacome, the previous Ms. UCLA, had relearned how to speak Kumeyaay by taking classes at Kumeyaay Community College in San Diego County.
“A lot of people all over the country are relearning their cultures, relearning their languages,” he said. “And this is where the learning happens – elders can speak their languages to the kids here.”
Phillips paused, watching the two young women make their way around the field.
“The pow wow is like our university,” he said.