2019-04-01 / Spotlight

Sharing Culture

with John Sanchez, Penn State Powwow coordinator
By Sarah Rafacz

John Sanchez beams with pride when he talks about his family.

“Man, you look sharp there, cowboy,” he tells grandson Chaska, 6, as he dons the full regalia he’ll wear to the 15th annual Penn State Traditional American Indian Powwow.

“When he was 4 years old, he brought in our eagle staff for our family with his dad, and he likes doing it ... it’s important to him (and) makes him feel like he belongs somewhere,” says Sanchez, who is ndeh Apache and an associate professor in Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications. Sanchez and his wife, Victoria, started the powwow in 2004.

The first one featured one drum and a couple dozen dancers. It’s grown to include six drums and about 200 dancers from about 25 reservations across the country.

Sanchez says it was important for his family to have this powwow. At State High, his children were the only Native students; most of the school is Caucasian. “It was difficult for them to identify with their culture. And so one weekend out of the year, we have literally hundreds of Native people come to visit ... . We dance and we eat and we laugh and we talk, and we share things about life, what it’s like being back home and what it’s like being in State College. … I think it really works.”

The powwow in 2014 was billed as the final one. But people really missed it, so after a one-year hiatus it returned. This year, Sanchez expects about 6,000 attendees April 6-7 at Mount Nittany Middle School (

They will find traditional American Indian foods like buffalo, corn soup and fry bread for sale; arts and crafts vendors; American Indian culture; and dances that have been handed down through generations.

“Traditional powwows are hard to find. Most of them are contests — who’s the best dancer and how much money can you make doing this,” he says. “(A) traditional powwow focuses on the culture and keeping those traditions alive.”

SUPPORTING OTHERS “The powwow is really for the people,” Sanchez says. Previously, the powwow hosted a book drive and sent thousands of books to the children at the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota for their library. In 2014, an endowed scholarship, the New Faces of an Ancient People Traditional Powwow Trustee Scholarship for Educational Equity, was created.

SALUTING VETERANS Sanchez says the powwow has been able to honor veterans of World War II, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War. “The thing that was amazing was the World War II veterans because … there was only one Native veteran and the others were all non-Native, and they all came in their uniforms. And they all danced in and carried in the colors and people cried. It was hard to watch. But they cried. It was very heart-moving.”

THROUGH THE GENERATIONS “I like (to) go down to my son’s farm (near Warriors Mark) … . We collect classic cars, and we collect tractors. If I don’t have anything to do, I like to go out there with him. My son (Dakota), he’s a real outdoorsman. He’s just a great kid; he’s a hard worker. When I go, when my time comes, I know that he’s going to be an excellent replacement for keeping the culture going. He’s really into it. He doesn’t wear it on his shoulders, but he’s very proud of who he is. It shows through his children.” All four of Sanchez’s grandchildren — the youngest just turned 3 — will dance at the powwow.

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