While the rest of State College was celebrating State Patty’s Day, students like Kayla and Shelby Cwalina were dancing at the 18th annual Penn State Powwow in the C3 Sports complex.

According to programs from the event, “dancers and drum groups from American Indian reservations and communities across the United States and Canada travel hundreds, some thousands, of miles to State College of one of the finest powwows in or outside of Indian Country.”

The event also raised awareness for Native American veterans, nonbinary support and environmentalism.

“I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember, I’m 20 years old and I can’t even tell you when I started coming here,” Kayla Cwalina, a third-year studying criminology and rehabilitation and human services, said. “It’s a lot of family, a lot of community — this is our culture.”

According to Shelby Cwalina, powwows are “second nature” to her and her sister.

For Kayla Cwalina, participating in the Penn State Powwow is important because it’s “a lot about education” and “for generations, our culture as a whole and our people as a whole have been silenced.”

“Coming out and seeing it for yourself is the best way to learn (and) asking questions … that’s amazing,” Kayla Cwalina said. “Some people don’t do that when they come and they just kind of keep their preconceived notions and you’re not gonna learn that way.”

The sense of community is also important to the Cwalina sisters.

“When I (first) went on campus, I was like, ‘There’s no native people here.’ I’m like, ‘What am I gonna do?’ So I got into IPSA (Indigenous Peoples’ Student Association) and we kind of built our own community.” Kayla Cwalina said. “We have about 34 people. That’s it. We have 12 people who show up because self identifying is hard.”

According to Kayla Cwalina, “blood quantum levels,” or the “amount of tribal affiliation in a person’s ancestry,” causes “problems within (their) community” regarding acceptance; however, the powwow accepts all, especially during intertribal dancing.

“That’s when everybody can come out. Spectators, singers, dancers — everybody,” Kayla Cwalina said.

Although Raven Shackelford said she was apprehensive when her grandfather, one of the dancers, Mansfield Moore, tried to get her to join him during the dance, she said she felt a sense of peace and connection being at the event.

“It’s just really wholesome to see all the different colors, skin and dress and the different types of cultures is really heartwarming,” Shackelford said. “I wish we had this, you know, more often.”

Shackelford traveled from Philadelphia to watch her grandfather perform, and her grandmother traveled from Ohio.

As more people were brought out onto the floor to dance, not in traditional regalia, Adira Fidler said every tribe at the event was there to teach and guide anyone willing to learn.

“A lot of us have friends, family and significant others who aren’t Native, we still like to include them in our culture — it’s all about inclusivity,” Fidler, a dancer and member of the Lenape tribe, said.

“The more that we share it, the more of a chance it has to thrive,” she said.

For Fidler, the dances and traditional regalia worn at the powwow bring an additional sense of unity for anyone and everyone involved.

“It’s interesting, I do the old style jingle, but you can tell different dance styles based on what everyone’s wearing — you learn more about our culture and tradition through what you see here,” she said.

From her perspective, everything about the powwow is community driven. The regalia is only one part of how connected each and every person, “Native or not,” is.

According to Fidler, “the clothing builds community.”


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