‘We come together to celebrate life’

There were times when dancers participating in the 39th annual traditional Wacipi, held last weekend in the ballroom of the Muenster University Center, found themselves squeezed together in a small amount of floor

These women perform a traditional dance which is simple in appearance, but plays a very important symbolic role. The dancers move their feet to the beat of the drum to represent the heartbeat of mother earth. See more photos of last weekends Wacipi held at USD at spotted.yankton.net. (Photo by David Lias)

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They didnt mind rubbing shoulders. Many of the participants in last weekends Wacipi have become acquainted over the years as they participate in similar events. They are well-steeped in the traditions of this celebration that remains a vital part of their culture.

They are family.

J.R LaPlante, who served as the arena director for the weekend event, expressed gratitude for all of the effort put forth in advance to make the Wacipi possible.

There is a lot of work. It starts with fundraising for the powwow, and then once the powwow gets here, youve got to set up everything, he said. You have to put your staff together, the people who manage and direct the powwow once it starts and that consists of an emcee, an arena director, your judges and your drum judges, because with the powwow, like all of aspects of Indian culture and society, there are protocols and there are rules.

The Native American culture traditionally is a very orderly society, and we have to be very careful to follow these protocols. If we dont follow them properly, everything can get out of sync, plus we get scolded by our elders, LaPlante said with a grin. Theres always that watchful eye looking over us, making sure that were doing everything properly, and its also about trying to treat everybody with as much respect and dignity, and trying to respect every tribal community.

Tiospaye U., an on-campus organization at the University of South Dakota for Native American and non-Native American students dedicated to promoting Native American life on campus, hosted the event in the Muenster University Center on the USD campus March 26-27.

Theyve done an absolutely fantastic job of putting this together, LaPlante said.

The weekends events began Friday night with an alumni dinner held in the Muenster University Center. The banquet was held to honor Native American USD alumni including the recipient of the 1974 Alumni Achievement Award, John H. Artichoker, Jr. from the classes of 1951 and 1957.

In addition to Artichoker, 55 other Native American graduates were recognized for the contributions theyve made in their communities and in the workplace since they received their degrees from USD.

Friday night was the first time theyve had the alumni dinner back on campus in a number of years, said LaPlante, a USD grad who recently was appointed by Gov. Dennis Daugaard as the states first secretary of tribal relations, a cabinet-level post. They had over 300 people come in and be a part of that dinner.

The students who make up Tiospaye U. come from across South Dakota and the upper Midwest.

They bring with them the expertise that theyve learned over the years. They bring a lot of talent with them that theyve acquired by being a part of the powwows held in their communities, LaPlante said.

By Sunday morning, it was estimated that as many has 300 people had traveled to Vermillion to participate in this years annual event. Student organizers saw their hard work pay off in a big way and also offer a unique challenge at the same time.

Last years Wacipi, held in the roomier Vermillion High School gymnasium, attracted between 150 to 200 dancers, said Wyatt Pickner, president of Tiospaye.U.

The MUCs ballroom offered fewer square feet for up to 300 dancers, drum groups, singers and audience members. The student organizers, however, helped everyone work and dance in the cozier quarters.

This event is definitely a huge success, said Pickner, a junior at USD majoring in American Indian Studies/Clinical Lab studies who is a member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. Definitely everyone could get a sense of how small the area is we have to work with this year, but at the same time, I also felt that it helped bring everyone closer together.

Knowing that we were able to put something together like this is extremely overwhelming and were so happy with the turnout, he said.

Many participants some who are USD alumni traveled from as far away as California, Texas, Georgia and the East Coast to take part in last weekends events.

To be able to bring people here like that, and to have them meet with students on campus here, and to meet with community members and local spectators at the powwow is very powerful, Pickner said.

The Wacipi was open to anyone who wished to attend. Those not familiar with the customs of a powwow soon noticed different styles of dance taking place on the ballroom floor. The men's traditional dance symbolizes a battle or the story of a hunt. The men's grass dance is said to have come from the past, when dancers were sent in first to stomp down long grass to make a clearing for the other dancers during a powwow.

Men's fancy dancing became a traditional part of Wacipis in the late 1900s. This style is preferred by boys and young men, who wear brilliantly-colored bustles and dance regalia.

The women's traditional dance is simple in appearance, but plays a very important symbolic role. The dancers move their feet to the beat of the drum to represent the heartbeat of mother earth, to heal the world.

Many of the women and young girls wore jingle dresses. The small jingles that adorn their clothing, made of twisted tin, represent waves of water and thunder as they performed what is known as a healing dance.

It was impossible to not notice the female dancers who performed in the style commonly referred to as fancy. These dancers wore elaborately beaded dance regalia, covered by long, decorated, fringed shawls. These Wacipi participants made efforts to resemble beautiful butterflies, spreading out their shawl-covered arms as they spun in tiny circles on the crowded floor in the university center.

LaPlante, a 2009 graduate of the USD School of Law, lives in Vermillion with his wife, who is an assistant professor at the university. He said the weekend felt a bit like a homecoming. Im very proud of my roots that Ive been able to lay down here in Vermillion, LaPlante said.

It is fitting, he said, that an event designed to honor the universitys graduates was held on the campus, because it gave those USD grads a chance to talk about the importance of education to the youth in attendance.

I think every alumnus, and there are many here this weekend, are an ambassador, LaPlante said. We encourage our young people to attend college and get that post secondary education, and if they choose USD, all the better.

Im proud of my alma mater, and I take every opportunity I can to encourage our young Indian people to get that education, he said. You dont realize it as an alumnus, but the students look at you, and Im really grateful that Im able to set an example that way. Education is the key. Without education, it limits your possibilities, but with education, you have unlimited possibilities.

One of the people who helped lay the cornerstone of Native American education at USD in the 1970s was in attendance last weekend.

The goal at that time was to train Indians and other minorities in guidance and counseling, said Eric LaPointe. Dr. Tom Gooden initially got the first federal grant, and it was in the school of education.

The program started with 20 students, who, after two years, graduated with their masters degrees. It was the first time we ever had that number in South Dakota graduate with that degree, he said.

As LaPointe was finishing up work on his masters degree at the University of Montana, he was asked to work on creating a satellite program that would offer educational opportunities at USD, the University of North Dakota, Eastern Washington, the University of Washington and the University of Montana.

The concept was that every summer, the students would come to the center here at USD, and I was the center director, LaPointe said. Students would pick up their first six to 10 hours of study here at USD, and then during the academic year, they would go to their respective satellite schools and continue their studies there.

Approximately 25 students participated in each of three consecutive years in this satellite program, and it turned out to be a godsend. We were fortunate because the teacher corps was just winding down, and there was a lot of Indian people who had just gotten their bachelors degrees throughout this five-state region.

As these graduates entered the education field as counselors and continued working on their masters degrees, eventually there came a push to steer more Native American educators into the field of school administration, special education and library and media fields.

At one time, from 1977 to 1983, the center satellite program had faded out so everything was here at USD, LaPointe said. We were averaging at least 10 to 12 graduates every year with their masters in those disciplines, and at the same time we were able to get some funding so that some students could back here and receive their doctorate degrees.

Today, LaPointe works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Idaho, in part because federal funding that allowed Native American education programs to flourish at USD began to dry up in the 1980s.

Young Native American people still have the same quest for education. You need that advanced degree because you then come better prepared to work with students. The motivation is there, and were about at the point where we need to try something like this again, he said.

LaPointe said young Native American people are now spreading their wings so to speak, and seeking education opportunities in a wide variety of fields, from law and medicine to education and social work.

Im staying busy this weekend, telling young people to not set their goals too short. They need to think big, and not shortchange themselves, he said.

The dancing eventually stopped late Saturday night to give participants a chance to catch some sleep. Late Sunday morning, beating drums and raised voices heralded everyone back into the ballroom to continue the celebration.

This is very important to our way of life, LaPlante said. These are our cultural ways. We come together to celebrate life, to celebrate each other, to celebrate our culture and our language, our songs and our dance. For this brief time over the weekend, we are all one in this circle.

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