The drumbeat holds steady for days, with the sun beaming on colorful fabric that lifts in the breeze. Gourds rattle. Voices lift — in song, in prayer, in celebration, in communion. Dancers wearing traditional regalia enter and exit from the inner ring of a large circle bounded by clusters of families and friends. There is laughter and hugging; children are playing. All have come together to witness one another, and to celebrate and preserve their cultural heritage.
For nearly four decades, student organizers from UCLA’s American Indian studies program have welcomed members of Native and Indigenous communities from across the country to the UCLA campus for UCLA Pow Wow. Third-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics major Cheyenne Faulkner (Lumbee and Shoshone-Bannock) grew up dancing in pow wows in her community near San Diego. For the past two years, she has been leading the production of UCLA’s event as it emerged from a pandemic-fueled hiatus. In May, Pow Wow drew roughly 5,000 participants and spectators to Wallis Annenberg Stadium.
At UCLA Pow Wow, guests learn about Native culture as they peruse, purchase and enjoy traditional foods and jewelry, clothing and merchandise made by Native artists. A master of ceremonies — this year, Ruben Little Head (Northern Cheyenne) — works alongside the lead drummers and gourd dancers to keep the rhythm going, providing information and access points. A long-standing Pow Wow tradition is a pageant, after which the newly named Ms. Pow Wow Princess is welcomed into the arena with an honor song. She is now a UCLA ambassador to other pow wows across the state.
At its heart, UCLA Pow Wow exists as a healing space, an opportunity for shared joy, for expressing gratitude, for offering up dreams. It is a time to acknowledge the ancestors who have come before, the ancestors among us now, and those yet to be. “My hope for attendees,” says Faulkner, “is that they will get to experience the beauty of Native culture and how our cultures and traditions still live on today.”
Click to see incredible photos from this year’s event
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Summer 2023 issue.