Austin Powwow Showcases American Indian Heritage

By: Estefania de Leon, Estephanie Gomez, Karla Pulido and Raylee Elder

Tucked inside the heart of the Sunset Valley, Tex. in South Austin a group of American Indians have gathered from all over the country to tap their feet and chant to the beat of the drum on the blue gym floor in front of a crowd for the Austin Powwow.

This year marks the 24th year for the powwow which includes performances known as grand entries, as well as dancing competitions. American Indians participating came from Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, and Minnesota.

The Austin Powwow is hosted by Great Promise for American Indians, a local organization founded in 1991. The powwow is a place for different tribes to gather and socialize keep the tradition alive.

“The organization really started out as a way to hopefully influence the independent school districts in the area and get better treatment for American Indian children,” said Lois Duncan, the director of the Great American Promise for American Indians, “One of the school districts then [suggested] that if we do a powwow that that might be a great way to pass on the culture.”

Since the Austin Powwow began in 1992, it outgrew its location and is now hosted in at an Austin Independent School District facility.

“The powwow got started because of our American Indian students,” said Diane Tigges, American Indian Education Program (AIEP) coordinator. “Almost 25 years ago they decided that they needed to do something in the urban areas to help students get reconnected with their tribal blood and so they started a powwow and it’s been a great partnership since then.”

To keep the tradition alive in such a small community, Duncan is trying to bring the younger generations of American Indians into Great Promise to pass down the legacy.

“They have not suffered under a reservation regime where basically, the indians lost everything and they were forced to live on the outskirts of usually forts and things like that and accept commodities from the army,” Duncan said. “But now I see these younger generations taking a great pride in their heritage, learning their languages again, learning about who their ancestors were.”

Today, the powwow includes a platform to spread awareness about the American Indian community in the nation.

“I think it’s just good communication and trying to work with each other and trying to understand the other parties what they’re talking about so they also understand what we’re talking about,” Great Promise chairman Lee Walter said. “’I’ve always seen the government, the military reach out to us, and they want to know more about diversity. It seems like there’s more interest of trying to get us to participate so that we can educate others on what we do.”

With a local population of 0.3 percent and a 0.9 percent nationally according to the 2010 U.S. Census, it is challenging to find American Indians let alone members of the same tribe. According to Duncan, most of the American Indians living in Austin are not from the original tribe that lived here.

“When a family moves to town, because unless there is an organization like us they don’t know where to find other Indian families to come together as a group,” Duncan said. “We’re what’s known as an urban Indian population. In other words, we’re many, many, many different tribes, but we all come together around that one heritage of being the first peoples.”

AIEP serves the Austin, Bastrop, Leander, and Round Rock school districts. It is mainly funded through the office of education.

Tigges says graduation rates among American Indian and Alaskan Native students are the lowest among any other racial or ethnic group (according to Education Weekly –

“Typically about 25 percent of our students will drop out of high school,” Tigges said. “On reservations it’s even higher. It’s about 50 percent.”

Funds raised at the Austin Powwow have helped AIEP increase the graduation rate in the school districts it serves to 90 percent through services like help finding tutoring, coverage of college entrance exam fees, scholarship information, and workshops.

One of the main challenges Tigges says she faces is finding time to publicize the program and let people know it exists. Delaney Quinn, a senior at McNeil High School, is one of the students recruited into the program by Tigges.

“I had a counselor [Tigges] who was Native American and she kind of like found us since I’m registered as a Native American on my transcript,” Quinn said. “She kind of like pinpointed us and asked us to like join.”

For Tigges a barrier that impedes her from finding more students is that many American Indians are not aware of their tribe, and many don’t even know.

“There are so many students and families that are removed from the reservations and even from the areas that they get their actual blood from, they may be papered so to speak but they have no clue about their nationality at all,” Tigges said. “The program gives them some insight into it. That’s the whole goal.”

Photos by: Estefania de Leon, Estephanie Gomez and Karla Pulido. Editing by: Raylee Elder

Infographics by: Estephanie Gomez

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