The CSUN Powwow resumes this Saturday, after a two year pandemic hiatus. This year marks it’s 37th year. Photo credit: Alejandro JSM Chavez

Across the country, the month of November is proclaimed Indigenous People’s Heritage Month. On the campus of California State University, Northridge, however, there is a notable distinction – November is Indigenous “Awareness” Month.

While the difference may not be readily noticed – it is notable.

“What is interesting for us is – we don’t emphasize that word history, because too often, adults and students alike have a concept of American Indians to be part of history, but not part of the present,” said Scott Andrews, director of the CSUN American Indian Studies Program.

“More than 250,000 American Indians live in Los Angeles County, which is the largest native urban population in the country,” Andrews points out.

Too often people think of Native people as living in rural areas or on reservations, not in cities.

But, urban Native American Indian people – descendants of First people who are true native Angelenos who are Ventureño, Gabrieleño-Tongva and FernandeñoTataviam people are very much alive and contributing to all walks of life. They will be among those this Saturday, Nov. 28, at the 37th Annual Powwow at CSUN. These three tribes, that continue to be active with enrolled members in LA County, have ancestors who lived throughout what is now known as Los Angeles more than 2,000 years before European settlers arrived.

“American Indians in LA are spread out all throughout the county, so attending the powwow is one way for everyone to get together, to keep the social networks strong – to catch up on everybody’s family and spend the day together,” said Andrews.

“It’s not like there is a central population of people in the same way there is for other ethnic groups living in Los Angeles, you don’t live right next door to each other,” said Andrews who also noted the CSUN Powwow also brings together additional Native urban residents from  Riverside, Ventura Counties and beyond.

In previous years, some people have come from as far away as Canada.

Photo credit:  Alejandro JSM Chavez

While Andrews emphasizes that Native people should never be viewed as extinct – what also can’t be overlooked is the present day contributions and the connections between Native American social and political movements that organized on the CSUN and UCLA campuses in the early 70’s that helped to build pathways to education.

This activity occurred at the same time as the American Indian and Chicano movements that were politically active and called attention to the plight of Native people. 

K-12 Native American Education Has Been Limiting 

Most people, however, get a small window into Native history. Afterall,  K-12 teaching about Native people for decades has provided a myopic account that has typically included the building of California’s Missions and the role of the Mission Indians as well as a very romanticized telling of the First Thanksgiving.

“There’s hardly anything in the current school curriculum on the contemporary indigenous experiences, pipeline protests [and] sovereignty rights. Those things are all in use right now but don’t get talked about much in primary education K through 12,” Andrews said.

Debbie Rambeau recently spoke at CSUN about the history of powwows and the first CSUN event that was organized was called “Indian Day.” This history has yet to be fully acknowledged and students today are not aware of this history unless they have the benefit of taking a university course.

For generations, most public school students have received a narrow view about Native people. 

“What they probably get is from their fourth grade unit on American Indians. It’s all about the past. They probably don’t talk about Alcatraz. They don’t talk about betrayal of broken treaties. They don’t talk about Wounded Knee.”

These topics, however, are what Andrews teaches in his Introduction to American Indian classes that correlates present day social issues.

“They’re really not aware of the sort of contemporary experience. And so that’s what I try to emphasize in my class is not all the old stuff, but all of the new stuff and the current stuff in the contemporary life that Native people live.” 

Andrews over the years has also noticed more Native populations enrolling at CSUN from Central America and Chicano/a/x students who are interested in exploring their native roots.

His department will soon be expanding with the addition of a female professor who has an eclectic background that includes theater, religion and gender studies. The department is linked with  the native community.

An important element at the powwow is the children’s table that provides hands-on art projects and activities that includes Los Angeles and California native language, imagery and culture. It has been hosted by the Fernandeño Tataviam band of Mission Indians who will be leading the grand entry. 

What Andrews and other Native people would like people to see is Native culture and make the connections between a way of life that serves the needs of the environment and life.

Native Joy

“I want them to see Native people happy, Native people with families, Native people enjoying themselves, enjoying the celebration, enjoying your friendships, enjoying your family. You know, what we don’t talk enough about in popular culture and media, is Native joy,” said Andrews.

“It tends to be about Native victimhood and oppression, native suffering in history. We’ll talk about Native joy. People being happy, people being prosperous, people having a good time. People being thankful, people singing the songs that are ancient, people singing songs that are new.”

Andrews said it’s very joyful to see young kids coming into the circle at powwows, dancing with elders. He is proud to talk about Sam Sierra, who is going to be the head man.

“He’s a young man now, but he was our head boy in one of the first powwows ever put together. He’s been coming to our powwow for 10 years. And so we’ve watched him grow up in the circle, and it’s that sort of togetherness and mutual support that I spend more time talking about and more time experiencing then I do talking about something like, what was the true meaning of Thanksgiving in terms of American history,” Andrews said. 

While November and the Thanksgiving holiday typically is the one time of the year that news media reports about Native people, but it’s not what Andrews wants to talk about.

“I think more people are more aware that Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday and there are myths on both sides. Myths of the sort of utopian friendship idea and the myth of the horrible experience when actually it’s somewhere in between. 

“But at the powwow – Thanksgiving isn’t a subject of discussion,” he explains.

“Even though the powwow is held the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we don’t talk about it much at the event. We make jokes about if you’re tired of turkey leftovers … if you’re tired of football on TV, you can come to the powwow and dance.

“You’ll find gratitude emphasized in all of the cultures in at least North America. So there’s never going to be an issue with having a holiday to get together and to express our gratitude and express happiness at being together with the family.

“Let’s talk about now and Native joy and Native living thoroughly contemporary lives. Gratitude is a fundamental indigenous concept,” said Andrews. 

The 37th Annual CSUN Powwow is  free and will be held from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the Sierra Quad, located in the center of campus at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. The CSUN Powwow will begin at with a Gourd Ceremony, a ceremonial dance, followed at 12:30 p.m. by the Grand Entry, which includes a procession of all the dancers in traditional dress and regalia, opening blessings, greetings and songs.