Powwow at Penn

The 13th annual event showcased the diversity of native, Indigenous, and First Nations people.

Keturah Peters, wearing a buckskin skirt and a purple top, performs a dance with a woven blanket
Keturah Peters, a 2018 School of Nursing alum, performs in the Women’s Traditional Dance.

A powwow begins with drums, as the cascading voices of musicians call dancers in for the Grand Entry, the first moment when they are called into the sacred arena. At Penn’s 13th annual Powwow, which also marked the 40th anniversary of the Greenfield Intercultural Center and the 30th anniversary of Natives at Penn, an Indigenous student organization formerly called Six Directions, Brian Weeden, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, and his wife, Keturah Peters, a School of Nursing alumnus who is also Mashpee Wampanoag, led the group as head dancers.

Penn’s Powwow emphasizes diversity while honoring the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe. At the 2024 ceremony, Natives at Penn honored two Lenape elders, Lewis “Gray Squirrel” Pierce and Ann “Wolf Spirit Woman” Dapice. “It is always important to understand that Native communities exist here,” says Valerie De Cruz, who has served as director of the Greenfield Intercultural Center since 1997. “They are not just part of history. They occupy land here; they exist here in our community.”

When a stranger walks on new ground, it is tradition to seek out their hosts, De Cruz says. “You want them to know that you understand this is their territory and that you understand that you are a guest.”

The hall of flags pictured with intertribal dancers and musicians
An intertribal dance at Penn’s 13th annual Powwow, with the Yoontay Singers in the foreground. The singers, five of whom were present at Penn’s Powwow, sat in a circle around the drum, which is made from the skin of a large ungulate (deer, moose, and buffalo are common) stretched across a wooden frame. “We call our drum grandfather,” says Atsa Zah of the Yoontay Singers. “We believe there is a spirit inside.”

For Ryly Ziese, a third-year at the Wharton School from Cookson, Oklahoma, this is important. Ziese, who is Cherokee Nation, is on the Natives at Penn board as treasurer and helped to organize the Powwow. “Yes, we are Natives at Penn,” she says, “but it’s important to ask the people whose land we are on.”

Through her involvement, Ziese was able to meet people from different tribes. “Coming to Penn, I had very set mind of what a Native person was, just because I grew up around the same type of people,” she says. 

“It’s been very eye-opening,” Ziese says. “I’ve enjoyed learning about all the different cultures that either blend with mine, or maybe sometimes contradict what we believe.”

“Our goal is really to support Native, Indigenous, and First Nations students,” De Cruz says. “We center students in exploring what it is they want to do on campus, in terms of building their leadership, raising awareness, and increasing understanding of Native traditions.”

In the foreground, female dancers with shawls. In the background, a young man in warrior regalia.
An intertribal dance. In the background, a young man wears regalia made from birds of prey.

According to Natives at Penn, more than 20 tribes, nations, and peoples are represented by Penn faculty, students, and staff. Now a registered nurse in Mashpee, Peters says that Natives at Penn helped her adjust to University life. 

Wearing a fringed buckskin skirt and carrying a blanket, Peters led the first women’s intertribal dance. The women traveled clockwise in a circle, following the path of the sun. 

Traditionally, both feet remain on the ground during powwow dancing, said the event’s emcee, Keith Colston of the Tuscarora and Lumbee tribes. Dancers took small steps forward, moving forward with the balls of their feet with heels elevated and knees bent, following the beat of the drum. 

With more than 100 people in attendance from Penn and beyond, Colson guided the audience through the Powwow, offering education and protocols. Certain dances and ceremonies are for specific groups only, he said. In the women’s fancy exhibition, twirling dancers in long, fringed shawls made 360° turns in place; in the jingle dance, a newer dance from the early 20th century, women wore bugle-shaped ornaments, tobacco tin lids rolled into cones and sewn to their skirts, which clinked as the dancers moved. The men’s traditional dance is for warriors, Colson said. These dancers wear regalia made from birds of prey and cowbells tied around the ankles. 

A young woman dances in the center of the hall of flags, with swirling fringed shawls around her.
The women’s fancy dance is a newer style, said Keith Colston, the event’s emcee. With hopping steps, the women turn in 360° circles in place.

During social dances and intertribal dances, everyone was invited to participate. Ziese, wearing a long skirt striped with glossy stripes of satin ribbon along the hem, waved friends to come up, guiding them in the dance. 

Throughout the Powwow, the Red Blanket Singers of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe and the Yootay Singers of the Mashantucket Pequot tribal nation in Connecticut drummed and sang. It’s a practice handed down through generations, say Atsa Zah and Phyllip Thomas, both of whom performed with the Yootay Singers. “Before I could even walk, I was singing at the drum with my uncles and my dad,” Thomas says. “I was brought up in this.”

The Yootay Singers practice northern style singing, which is high-pitched with a quick cadence, Zah says, and incorporate both modern and traditional songs in the Algonquin dialect. Powwow culture is evolving, he says, with new songs being written. The singers, five of whom were present at Penn’s Powwow, sat in a circle around the drum made from the skin of a large ungulate—deer, moose, and buffalo are common—stretched across a wooden frame. 

“We call our drum grandfather,” Zah says. “We believe there is a spirit inside.”

Zah and the Yoontay Singers travel on the powwow circuit from March through September, he says, teaching as they go. “We encourage all of our Indigenous youth to come around and learn by demonstration. We always try to pass that on to our young ones. It’s important to have culture to fall back on.”

Seven men sit in a circle around a drum; a female singer stands behind.
The Red Blanket Singers of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe.

Colson reminded the audience that drums were once prohibited. For many years, powwows were illegal, he said. The 1883 Code of Indian Offenses banned a coterie of Native American practices, including dancing and ceremonies, which continued into the 20th century, when dancing was removed from the ban in 1933. Ceremonies were not protected until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, signed in 1978.

As a nurse, Peters has seen the effects of colonialization on Indigenous people. If uprooted and divorced from culture, Native people can struggle. It shows up in their bodies through diabetes and hypertension, through mental health issues, and through substance abuse, she says. 

Her father is a recovering alcoholic who has found his way through traditional beliefs and practices like hunting and fishing, Peters says. “It can really change someone’s life and experiences.” Without culture, people lose their way, she says.

Now a mother, Peters wants to teach her son. “Trying to ingrain those values in him early will help with his life,” she says. She and Weeden named their son, Epenow, after a Nauset man kidnapped from Martha’s Vineyard who later led resistance efforts against English settlements on the East Coast. 

For more than 10,000 years, Mashpee, Massachusetts, has been Native land, Weeden says. In the Wampanoag language, to say, “I am from Mashpee,” or “n8tomas Maseepeeut,” is to say, “my blood and my bones are from Mashpee,” he says. Its land and people are entwined. 

The Wampanoag, which received federal recognition in 2007, was the tribe present at the first Thanksgiving, Weeden says, only they weren’t invited to the feast. After hearing muskets, about 90 men arrived at the English camp to honor a treaty but found that the camp was not under attack; the English had fired muskets to celebrate their harvest. “That’s how you know we weren’t invited,” Weeden said. “If we were, our women and children would have been there.”

It’s also the reason why the Wampanog didn’t attack the English, Weeden says. “They had women and children with them. That wasn’t our way.” 

At the Powwow, Weeden carried the 2-year-old boy aloft. Calm and quiet, the young Epenow nestled against his father’s shoulder, feeling the rhythms of the movement, listening to the beat of the drums. 

“Despite hundreds of years of fighting, disease, displacement, and cultural erasure, Native and Indigenous people are still here, and we are still strong,” Ziese says. She expects next year’s Powwow to be even bigger. 

Two women, one tying a bow on the other's regalia
Penn’s Powwow is on the powwow circuit, says Valerie De Cruz, which happens seasonally from March through September. For those who travel, it’s an opportunity for dancers to start honing their craft, she says.