To his knowledge, John Sanchez is the only American Indian faculty member at Penn State and when his kids were in the elementary and high school system, they were the only American Indian students.
Though he loves his job, Sanchez uses the annual traditional American Indian powwow as a way to recharge his batteries and interact with other Indians.
After this year, he will have to have to find another way to do that.
The 11th annual event took place at Mount Nittany Middle School on Saturday and Sunday, but Sanchez, the event coordinator, said it will be the last. Moving closer to retirement, Sanchez said the event planning takes too much time on top of his job teaching media ethics in the College of Communications and his distinguished professorship with the Schreyer Honors College.
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“It’s just overwhelming,” Sanchez said of the planning, adding that he’s not complaining and all the work has been worth it. “These last two days have been some of the best days of my life.”
He said he got emotional Sunday morning with the event’s last day, but he felt bittersweet knowing how far it had come.
He and his wife started the event 11 years ago, hoping to attract a few hundred people for a four-hour powwow, but they ended up getting 2,500 people in the first year.
The attendance grew to more than 7,000 this weekend, with American Indians from 18 different reservations representing about 30 different tribes, he said.
The event is one of the few traditional powwows, which focus on language, custom and respect, he said.
Some people drove as far as 17 hours from Canada or the Dakotas, and there were even two people from Sanchez’s Ndeh Apache tribe in Arizona, he said.
“I feel good about the last 11 years,” Sanchez said. “I feel good about these people — my people — coming all this way.”
The weekend featured tribal dancing, traditional celebrations and booths with authentic American Indian food and garb.
Patrick Littlewolf Brooks, who attends powwows across the country, said he loved the energy at this event, and that he’s heartbroken that this will be the last year. This was his first time in the area, but he was immediately swept up in the charm.
Brooks wore feathers and face paint and danced so much that he worked up a sweat. The dances aren’t choreographed, and Brooks said each person does not dance for him or herself, but rather for a loved one or another person who couldn’t be there.
“When we get out on the floor, everything is straight out of our hearts,” he said, adding that he was dancing for the Indian tribes in Canada that could lose their homes because of a proposed pipeline project.
And the weekend was not just for American Indians.
Thousands of people from the community came out to see the powwow and take part whenever possible.
Debra Dreher, of State College, comes every year, saying she wouldn’t miss it. Her parents always told her not to accept anyone else’s personal views of the world but instead to experience different cultures for herself.
She said her personal ideological views match up with those of many American Indians, so it’s a good chance to be exposed to other cultures and interact with them.
Dreher, who brought two of her nieces, said it’s also a great place to bring children.
“I’ve never seen a kid who wasn’t amazed by the dancing,” she said.