By Travis Williams
When Melissa Faircloth began her graduate studies at Virginia Tech, she noticed something was different compared with her previous campus experiences.
“I was used to my alma mater, ECU [East Carolina University], having a long-standing powwow,” said Faircloth, a member of the Coharie tribal community who just completed her doctoral degree in sociology. “Not only would I attend that one, I would go with friends and make the rounds to other universities’ powwows. So I was really interested that there wasn’t such a thing for a lot of Virginia universities that could create visibility and awareness and also offer something celebratory and culturally engaging for Native students.”
Starting from scratch in 2017, Faircloth, fellow student Caylin Stewart, and Program Support Technician Sarah Woodward spearheaded the university’s first Spring Powwow. Having never organized such a ceremony, Faircloth reached out to Rufus Elliott, Virginia Tech’s first Monacan alumnus, for guidance.
“While I attended a lot of powwows, I’d never really been on a planning committee,” Faircloth said. “I had an understanding of all the components as an attendee, but not having planned such an event, I sought out his mentorship to make sure we weren’t missing anything. That external support was really helpful in getting the first one going.”
Now the director of Virginia Tech’s American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, Faircloth has helped organize and oversee the annual powwow in some form for the past five years. Because of restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 event was canceled and the 2021 version was held in a virtual format.
“It definitely wasn’t the same feeling or vibe as it is being in person. Powwows are very colorful. There’s usually lots of food, there’s singing, there’s drumming. So you have all these things engaging all the senses that don’t have the same impact online,” Faircloth said. “But we were also happy to have a presence and even used the intermission space as an opportunity for several campus partners and myself to speak to prospective students about the resources that exist for Native students at Virginia Tech.”
Returning to an in-person format, the 2022 Spring Powwow is scheduled to be held on the Graduate Life Center Lawn today, April 23, from noon to 5 p.m. And along with the traditional event components, this year, for the first time, T-shirts will be available to attendees for free.
“Each year we try to support a Native artist, and this year, the shirts were designed by Sadie Red Wing,” Faircloth said.
Red Wing is a Lakota graphic designer and advocate from the Spirit Lake Nation of Fort Totten, North Dakota, and an assistant professor at the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto.
“She was inspired by patchwork that she used to see her grandmother and other women in the community do,” Faircloth said. “They’re very cool and colorful.”