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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

‘We are a living, breathing culture’: Native Americans sing, dance, educate at Notre Dame for Native American Heritage Month

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Members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and other Great Lakes Region tribes pose together for a photo after the Dance and Drum program. David Martin, Notre Dame's 2023-2024 artist in residence, stands on the right end of the group in his traditional regalia.


Members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians and other Great Lakes Region tribes danced, sang and drummed Wednesday evening at DeBartolo Hall. Current artist in residence and citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians David Martin organized the event as a way to invite the public to experience authentic Native American culture as part of Native American Heritage Month. 

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Three Native American women dance a traditional healing dance known as "side step" at the Native American Dance and Drum program Wednesday evening.


“What I really want people to understand is that we weren't a professional dance troupe. This is actually how we do it. They're the actual songs. We didn’t fancy-up any of the dance steps,” Martin said. “It was even more chaotic on stage because the whole format of what we did was based off of the format that we would do at our own powwow.”

The program included several different types of dance, with the first half highlighting traditional dance and song and the second half introducing a more contemporary and modern style. Martin said he especially wanted to represent the contemporary style to the public as a testament to the perseverance of Native American culture.

“I like to talk about [contemporary dance styles] as much as I can because it shows that we're a living, breathing culture. We’re evolving, changing and we adapt to new materials and new ideas,” Martin said.

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A Native American man dances in traditional woodland style.


Junior Kaitlin Mohlenkamp attended the program and said she enjoyed learning more about the local Potawatomi Nation.

“Well, I think it was beautiful that people came from hours away to connect and dance together. I think it really shows how much of a community the tribes in this area are,” Mohlenkamp said. “They all know each other, and they want to share their culture … It's really cool to see [even] the young boys and girls dancing and just carrying on that legacy.”

Senior Breanna Gruber, who identifies as Navajo, attended the program to experience a part of her culture she didn’t always have access to growing up. She said more awareness of Native American presence and culture is important to support their communities. 

“A lot of people are not very aware of the fact that Native American people are still living and practicing their culture and traditional ways of living,” Gruber said. “So I think something like this showcases that to people who aren’t able to live in the community or grow up in it, such as indigenous people like myself or non-indigenous people, you get to see a way of life that’s still being practiced and something that predates even Notre Dame itself.”

Assistant professor of American Studies Ashlee Bird is an advocate for Native American visibility and representation in digital media and popular culture. 

“Representation across the board is something that can be kind of undervalued in terms of its power and its effect on our communities, and especially on young people and how they understand themselves and who they are, who they can be, how they exist in the world,” Bird said.

As a member of Native American Initiatives (NAI) at Notre Dame and someone with Native American ancestry, Bird strives to help Indigenous peoples feel they have a place at Notre Dame. 

“I think this event and events like it are incredibly important for creating visibility. So it’s not just making our Indigenous students at Notre Dame, wherever they might come from, feel seen and feel like they have things going on on campus that are for them, but also to make indigenous peoples visible to the university at large to the student body, to the faculty and to the surrounding communities,” she said.

Native American presentations, programs and education are slowly becoming more popular on college campuses as a way to better recognize the history of native tribes and nations in the U.S., Bird explained.

“I think people are kind of starting to realize that these are underserved communities and groups and also have been largely made invisible," she said.

Notre Dame has not hosted a large dance and drum event to celebrate Native American heritage in nearly 30 years, Martin said. The University asked Martin to help plan this event with the Initiative on Race and Resilience (IRR) and the Native American Student Association (NASAND) to restore connection with local tribes. 

“There used to have a powwow out here. A lot of people don’t know about it. I used to come around here when I was a kid, and the Native American Student Organization used to throw it. Natives from all over the country used to come. It was at the Stepan Center. It was a big thing, but they haven’t had it since the '90s,” Martin said.

He explained that the most important part of the presentation for him was simply bringing Native Americans back to campus to sing and dance. 

"Especially in Indiana, especially in South Bend, when they think of my tribe, they think of casinos," Martin said. "So, really the easiest way, or the most shocking, is to [bring in] singers and dancers. And then from there, we’re starting other conversations.”

Most of all, Martin said he hopes that attendees, as well as anyone who interacts with Native Americans, recognize them as people deserving of respect, solidarity and support. 

“I just hope they're a little more aware that we are a living, breathing culture — that we're not a mascot,” Martin said. “We're your neighbors, and we exist. We want to be good neighbors with you. And I hope that they don't forget us after November.”