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Traditional powwow brings American Indian culture to central Pennsylvania

Video 12th Annual Traditional American Indian Powwow

New Faces of Ancient People Traditional American Indian Powwow kicked off Saturday at Mount Nittany Middle School. Organizer John Sanchez said the event is a way to celebrate the American Indian culture.
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New Faces of Ancient People Traditional American Indian Powwow kicked off Saturday at Mount Nittany Middle School. Organizer John Sanchez said the event is a way to celebrate the American Indian culture.

It didn’t matter which Mount Nittany Middle School hallway you walked through Saturday, the sound of bass drums echoed throughout the school.

It could be heard from the farthest part of the school from where the beat was coming from.

As you got closer, the sound of bells appeared in a rhythm that mimicked the stomp of a foot to the ground.

And then chants could be heard, followed by applause.

It was all part of a series of ritual dances by American Indians from across the country during the annual powwow organized by Penn State.

Organizer John Sanchez, an Apache, said the New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional American Indian Powwow takes about a year to plan, but last year, went on a hiatus after Sanchez suffered from health problems that caused him to need a kidney transplant.

“We’ve been doing this for 12 years, but I needed to take time off because of that,” he said. “I don’t talk about it much, but today I’m feeling good. Today is a good day.”

A powwow, Sanchez, said a “big spring dance that brings together native people.”

“We get people who have come from New Mexico and Arizona, and some who have drove all the way from Canada,” he said. “It’s one of the largest powwows in the country, and we have it right here.”

Sanchez said it attracts 5,000 to 6,000 people during the weekend, and this year, has more than 130 dancers, who, for the first time, will compete in a “friendly” dance off.

“We’re trying a few new things with that, and a candy dance for kids where we pass out candy,” Sanchez said. “There will be judges, but its about having fun, and it’s a very, very friendly competition.”

We want people to come out and experience this culture. We want to show them who we are so they’re not afraid.

John Sanchez, powwow organizer

The event also included children’s activities and craft vendors.

But something a little more veteran to the annual powwow was its food.

Kitchen manager Mike Zerby, of Columbus, Ohio, said he has been catering the powwow since its inception.

His staff cooks and serves traditional American Indian food.

“I’m part Anishinabe from my mother from Wisconsin, so I’ve known some of this kind of food most of my life,” Zerby said. “The recipes come from a combination of different foods we compiled for over 20 years.”

Influences, he said, come from the Sioux and Anishinabe tribes.

With a staff of about two dozen people per four- or five-hour shift, they make and serve fried bread, Indian tacos, chili, corn soup and buffalo burgers.

“This is the busiest powwow ever,” Zerby said. “We typically use about 100 pounds of flour for a three-day event, but we’re using 300 pounds in two days for this.”

He said the fried bread is the biggest seller, but perhaps one of the most important meals for American Indians is corn soup.

He used a recipe that included pork loin, yellow corn, hominy, onions and spices, but is made differently for every tribe.

“Soup is a big deal with native people,” Zerby said. “You can go anywhere and find it, but it usually comes with a different way to make it.”

Money raised through the kitchen, Zerby said, goes right back to Penn State.

Sanchez said they raise enough money each year so admission is free for guests.

“We want people to come out and experience this culture,” Sanchez said. “We want to show them who we are so they’re not afraid. There is some education that comes out of this. ... What’s nice is that it also allows local Native Indians to also congregate. There aren’t many here in central Pennsylvania.”

Britney Milazzo: 814-231-4648, @M11azzo

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