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Hozhoni Days powwow embraces the culture of more than 180 tribes

Hozhoni Days powwow embraces the culture of more than 180 tribes

Powwow dancersThe day began with a prayer. Outside the walls of Fort Lewis College’s Whalen Gymnasium, the site of this year's Hozhoni Days, singing and drum beats resonated, setting a reverent tone for the powwow.

“What you give to the circle, what you give to the drum, is what you receive in good blessings and prayer in return,” said Boye Ladd Sr., a member of the HoChunk and Zuni Nation who served as Master of Ceremonies. “The spirit is here today.”

This past weekend marked the 58th celebration of Hozhoni Days, a powwow that stands as the campus's oldest cultural event. The tradition began in 1966, originally hosted by the Shalako Indian Club, now known as Wanbli Ota, a registered student organization dedicated to fostering cultural diversity both on campus and within the community.

Hozhoni Days featured dancers and singers from tribes across the country. During Hozhoni Days, participants take part in a variety of activities, including the Hozhoni Days Powwow contest, an arts and crafts market, a scholarship exhibition, the Native American Alumni Chapter breakfast, and a special tribute that celebrates FLC's Indigenous community.

During the Hozhoni Ambassador Exhibition, Audrey Leonetti and Selena Gonzales were selected as the 2024-25 Hozhoni Ambassador and First Attendant, respectively.

“There’s a lot of meaning behind this powwow,” Rexine Williams, assistant director of FLC’s Native American Center, said. “And the great thing about Hozhoni Days is the different tribal representations. We have such a diversity of tribes that are part of this powwow.”

Young powwow dancer

Indeed, Williams said anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 people attend Hozhoni Days in a typical year. Though organizers were still tallying this year’s numbers as of Monday, Williams said numerous tribes from the U.S. and Canada were represented.

Around 4 p.m. on Saturday, Whalen Gymnasium was a remarkable sight. As the preparations for the Grand Entry got underway, dancers crowded the stands, their heavy suitcases brimming with regalia. These outfits were a feast for the eyes, adorned with elaborate featherwork, a kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, and complex patterns.

As the drumming began, dancers danced into the arena, led by an eagle staff, flag bearers, elders, and the powwow head staff. The Grand Entry, a colorful and ceremonial kick off to the event, highlighted the many cultures of Indigenous communities present on campus.

Woman powwow dancer

FLC first-year student Audrey Leonetti’s personal highlight was announcing herself as royalty during the Grand Entry. Leonetti, 19, was named the FLC Hozhoni Ambassador this year and is now tasked with representing Indigenous students on campus and hearing their concerns.

As a native of Alaska and a member of the Curyung tribe, Leonetti said her involvement with Wanbli Ota and desire to take on a significant role in Hozhoni Days stems from her commitment to representing Indigenous students from her home state.

This year’s Hozhoni Days was her first real exposure to a large, full-fledged powwow, she said.

“It was very eye-opening because we don't have powwows in Alaska,” said Leonetti, a double major in environmental conservation and management and Native American & Indigenous Studies. “It was really cool to see all these communities come together.”

Standing outside the auditorium in full regalia preparing to dance, Bruce LeClaire said he’s no stranger to Hozhoni Days. In fact, this year marked the 40th time LeClaire and his family have participated in the powwow on campus.

So, what brings LeClaire, a Southern Ute Indian Tribe member, back every year?

“The connection,” he said. “You see people from all over and learn their traditions. And it’s growing in popularity, which is a good thing. We want to teach our children so they can carry on our traditions.”

This sentiment certainly rang true for this year’s theme: “Embracing our identities.”

Selena Gonzales is a junior at FLC majoring in criminology and justice studies, with a minor Native American & Indigenous Studies. She, too, was named the FLC Hozhoni Ambassador First Attendant and emphasized that the powwow aims not only to highlight but also to preserve Indigenous cultures.

“It’s super heartwarming, honestly,” Gonzales, who is of Diné and Hispanic heritage, said. “For some Indigenous students, they’re thousands of miles away from home, so seeing that representation always has a healing effect, which is the purpose of these dances – to heal us.”

Tom Stritkus, FLC President and Heather Shotton, VP of Diversity AffairsThe multi-day event brought singers and dancers from all over the country, some of whom participated in a variety of competitions, with different dance categories like golden age, tiny tots, and style of dance.

Archie Whitegoat, a Diné from New Mexico, shared that he competes in powwows nationwide, but this year marked his first participation in Hozhoni Days. On Saturday, he was prepared to enter the competitions in the chicken and grass dance categories.

“I grew up in powwow circles, and it became what I know and what I want to do,” he said. “When you’re dancing, it is such a good feeling. And all around, your friends slowly become your family.”

Williams said this year’s event would not have been possible without the help of countless volunteers from FLC’s staff, faculty, administrators, and students, as well as community members.

“The entire campus comes together and helps with this event, which always makes it successful,” she said.

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