47th Annual Student-led Powwow Comes to Montana State University

Native American dancer at AIC powwow, Montana State University Photo courtesy American Indian Council

Each spring, the American Indian Council (AIC) at Montana State University puts on their annual powwow. It’s a moving celebration of Native culture with beautiful drumming, singing, dancing and handmade goods from vendors. It’s a celebration open to everyone, and there is no charge, making it an excellent event for the whole family.

What makes this powwow so unique is that the entire production is student-led, and the hundreds of volunteers come not only from the Native American Studies Program but also from other schools across campus, including sororities and fraternities. We spoke with Riley Werk and Alex Michaels, co-presidents of the AIC, to learn more about what goes into a production of this size.

Werk and Michaels explained that it’s a year-round process, led by a newly elected council each fall. There is also a powwow leadership class, which all the leadership roles take. This class helps guide them on vendors, security, royalty and managing people. As a non-profit organization, they also do all their own fundraising. Costs for the powwow include renting the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, sound, security and paying the dancers, who sometimes travel long distances.

While the students are doing the work, the Native American Studies department helps them on a cultural level. Werk explained, “Our cultural keepers ensure we do things the right way — that we are inclusive but respectful of everyone’s cultures. All Native cultures are different, and our ceremonies are different, but they make sure we don’t step on toes. That’s what makes it stable and consistent.” She added, “It’s about building relationships with our community.”

Native American Dancer at AIC powwow, Montana State Photo courtesy American Indian Council

Werk is adamant in encouraging people to join in. “Sometimes people feel they need to come from a Native background to participate, but they don’t. We want you to be here. It may be our Native culture, but we always have open arms.” She encourages people to come and be present, active and enjoy the celebrations. “Have fun, laugh, enjoy yourself, heal,” she said. “Take a step back and enjoy our culture. We want everyone to know that we are still here.”

Dance competitions are judged by members of the community, and each category is judged based on attendance, dance technique and sometimes regalia style.

This year’s programming includes special dances that wouldn’t be in standard competitions, including a round dance to end the event. It’s a social dance in which everyone stands with their hands together, symbolizing unity. “We are all one community; we are all connected,” Werk emphasized.

The 2024 powwow will be held at Montana State University from March 29 to 30. If you’re interested in volunteering, you can sign up here.