When Melissa Faircloth began her graduate studies at Virginia Tech, she noticed something was different compared with her previous campus experiences.

“I was used to my alma mater, ECU [East Carolina University], having a long-standing powwow,” said Faircloth, a member of the Coharie tribal community who just completed her doctoral degree in sociology. “Not only would I attend that one, I would go with friends and make the rounds to other universities’ powwows. So I was really interested that there wasn’t such a thing for a lot of Virginia universities that could create visibility and awareness and also offer something celebratory and culturally engaging for Native students.”

Starting from scratch in 2017, Faircloth, fellow student Caylin Stewart, and Program Support Technician Sarah Woodward spearheaded the university’s first Spring Powwow. Having never organized such a ceremony, Faircloth reached out to Rufus Elliott, Virginia Tech’s first Monacan alumnus, for guidance.

“While I attended a lot of powwows, I’d never really been on a planning committee,” Faircloth said. “I had an understanding of all the components as an attendee, but not having planned such an event, I sought out his mentorship to make sure we weren’t missing anything. That external support was really helpful in getting the first one going.”

Now the director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, Faircloth has helped organize and oversee the annual powwow in some form for the past five years. Because of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 event was canceled and the 2021 version was held in a virtual format.

“It definitely wasn’t the same feeling or vibe as it is being in person. Powwows are very colorful. There’s usually lots of food, there’s singing, there’s drumming. So you have all these things engaging all the senses that don’t have the same impact online,” Faircloth said. “But we were also happy to have a presence and even used the intermission space as an opportunity for several campus partners and myself to speak to perspective students about the resources that exist for Native students at Virginia Tech.”

Returning to an in-person format, the 2022 Spring Powwow is scheduled to be held on the Graduate Life Center Lawn on April 23 from noon to 5 p.m. And along with the traditional event components, this year, for the first time, T-shirts will be available to attendees for free.

“Each year we try to support a Native artist, and this year, the shirts were designed by Sadie Red Wing,” Faircloth said.

Red Wing is a Lakota graphic designer and advocate from the Spirit Lake Nation of Fort Totten, North Dakota, and an assistant professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto.

“She was inspired by patchwork that she used to see her grandmother and other women in the community do,” Faircloth said. “They’re very cool and colorful.”

Before this weekend's event, Faircloth answered a few other questions about powwows in general, how community members can engage, and her hopes for the day.

Person dressed in tradional regalia.
Vicky Ferguson, the program coordinator for Solitude, takes part in a previous Spring Powwow. Photo by Melissa Faircloth for Virginia Tech.

What is a powwow?

“You’ll get a different answer depending on who you ask and what it means to them personally, but the best way I can describe it, at least for tribal communities, is there is obviously this cultural component of passing down tradition — having youth come and be a part of it and seeing the tradition passed down and carried out — but it’s also like a big family reunion or homecoming. I know when I go home, I see my aunts and cousins at powwow, and it may be one of the few times of the year I get to see them. So with extended family and extended tribal community members, it definitely has the feeling of a family reunion but with that cultural component as well.”

What generally happens at a powwow?

“It usually opens with something called grand entry and a presentation of flags. We have a lot of veterans in Native communities. Despite their history with militarization and colonialism, they participate at a higher proportion than any other ethnic group. So there is significant honoring of veterans at powwow. The Eagle Staff always goes out first at a powwow, which may not be the same as other western ceremonies where the United States flag goes out first, but those nations were here before the U.S. flag. Then you have different intertribal dance categories and the drumming and singing, of course. There’s usually food and arts and crafts vendors selling Native-made items.

At Virginia Tech, we generally run our powwow from noon to 5 p.m. with an intermission at 2 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. to allow folks to take a break and get something to eat. Though it starts at noon, it is a flow-in-and-out event."

How can people engage with the Virginia Tech powwow?

“As far as the Indigenous community, whether they are on campus or external to campus, we love to have dancers come out and participate. We’ve had dancers come from Virginia tribes, from North Carolina tribes, and even further beyond that. It’s amazing how far some people will travel to be able to dance and share their culture. We also have people attend to show up and support. A lot of the tribal leaders have showed up in support just to build that relationship with the campus, which is really important to us.

As far as non-Native patrons, just showing up as an attendee is great. It’s completely open to the public, and what’s great is that we always have emcees who do a great job of providing cultural education during the event. They’re not just calling the dances, they’re letting you know a little bit about what each dance’s history is and where it came from, what folks’ regalia means, so you get a lot of cultural education while you’re at the event."

What do you hope attendees garner from the powwow?

“I hope they realize there is a Native presence, despite it being small, on Virginia Tech’s campus. We have Native students. We have Native faculty and staff. They’re citizens of tribal nations. They’re not always identifiable by race or ethnicity, but that citizenship is a really important component.

One thing the student population regularly combats, and this shows up in my research, is this narrative of erasure, where most of our society that is non-Native have this perception that Native folks don’t exist anymore. I think the narrative of erasure is both a failure of K-12 education and even the teaching people often get in college. Arguably, American history starts with Native history, but a lot of American Indian history courses are electives, not a requirement, so students have to opt to take them.

The other component that feeds this false narrative is that there’s not a lot of representation in popular culture. Native people aren’t often reflected in film and media, and when they are, a lot of times it’s in very stereotypical and non-evolved ways. As if people still live in a strictly traditional fashion, which a lot of them don’t. So while participants will be showing up Saturday in traditional regalia, that regalia is reserved for ceremony. Outside of ceremony, most will be in jeans and T-shirts, and they’re going to look a lot like you.

So just being cognizant of the presence of Native people in our community is a really big deal.”

Written by Travis Williams