Celebratory drum beats, jingling bells, song and friendship rose on the winds cascading across the University of Nebraska–Lincoln on April 23.
For the first time in three years, students from UNITE — the University of Nebraska–Lincoln Intertribal Exchange — hosted their annual powwow to honor recent and upcoming Native American and indigenous graduates (from kindergarten through college). The event, which drew hundreds from across the Great Plains to the grassy knoll west of the Willa Cather Dining Center, was believed to be the first powwow held since the global pandemic started in 2020.
“We’ve been blessed with clear skies and wind,” said Craig Cleveland Jr., who served as the emcee for the event. “If you see someone you haven’t been able to see in the last two years, make sure you go say, ‘hello.’ We’re here today to celebrate.”
Among those celebrated were Nasia Olson-Whitefeather, a senior double-major and UNITE president; Isaiah Kluver, a senior double major and UNITE member; and Moi Padilla, director of the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy and TRIO Programs, as well as the UNITE adviser.
“This powwow feels like a miracle,” said Olson-Whitefeather, a double major who is graduating from the university in December. “The positivity and celebratory feeling in the air is exactly what we needed as a community — especially after these last two years.”
For many of the UNITE members, the celebration marked their first powwow experience. It was especially moving for Kluver, who has traced his family roots back to indigenous peoples from Querétaro, Mexico.
“The powwow has been an incredible opportunity to connect with and be a part of the indigenous community,” said Kluver, who graduates during May commencement. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to experience, but was unable to because of the pandemic.
“I’m just happy we’re able to offer this celebration to the entire community.”
Members of UNITE also surprised Padilla, honoring him with a red, white and black star quilt.
“Moi is getting his doctorate degree in a few weeks and we wanted to honor that and his incredible dedication as the UNITE adviser for the past seven years,” Olson-Whitefeather said. “We wanted everyone to know how hard he’s worked to support us.”
Overall, more than 60 dancers of all levels — from pre-K to senior citizens — competed for $12,000 in cash prizes. Dance styles and regalia associated with each ranged from traditional to modern.
The event also included a moment of silence to honor all missing and murdered indigenous persons.
For Olson-Whitefeather, it marked a culmination of her campus leadership as she is stepping down as UNITE president.
“This is my last big event and I’m feeling very emotional about it,” Olson-Whitefeather said. “UNITE has definitely been an important support system that I never knew I needed. It’s helped keep me on track.
“I’m proud that we were able to offer this powwow to the community. It was a lot of work for our team, but it was worth it to see everyone finally have an opportunity to come together and celebrate.”