The Power of the Powwow

Foster undergrad Annicette Gilliam reconnects with her Native heritage through First Nations @ UW and its annual Spring Powwow

Annicette Gilliam contains multitudes.

A fifth-year undergraduate at the UW Foster School of Business, Gilliam is studying accounting, information systems, history and environmental science. She is a past Hovind Global Leader at Foster and a current mentor in the Young Executives of Color Program. She works with the Foster Advancement team and has interned at PwC, the Seattle Fire Department and Seattle Public Library. And she has volunteered with a range of organizations working for social equity and climate justice. Even her cultural makeup is eclectic, a mix of Vietnamese, white and Native American heritage.

But the circumstances of a challenging youth obscured the Native aspect of Gilliam’s identity for most of her life. Her mother is affiliated with the Kiowa Tribe of the Great Plains. And though she grew up primarily in Tacoma and South Seattle, she maintained a connection to her Native heritage through close relations in the Yakama Nation and Suquamish Tribe of Washington state.

Years later, when she found herself raising three children on her own in South Everett, the struggle to survive took precedence over all else. She moved the family to North Seattle to find affordable housing and a more robust social safety net. Annicette Gilliam recalls her mother was “always working or trying to recover from working,” usually in tribal casinos that required long commutes and longer hours, often overnight.

She eventually sacrificed solid casino wages for lower-paying jobs that would allow her to be more present for her kids. But finances got even tighter. While Annicette was in middle school, her family became homeless, couch-surfing with friends and living out of a car while relying on assistance from organizations like Mary’s Place.

“When you’re supporting a family on a low income, there is very little time or energy for recreation, cultural events or even visits to relatives,” Gilliam says. “We became disconnected, and I grew up so detached from the Native community that I did not consider myself Native. It did not feel like my mother’s ancestry had passed on to me.”

Reconnecting through loss

This changed after the death of Gilliam’s older brother, whose baby photo was borne in a Kiowa cradleboard at his memorial. At this time, with Gilliam beginning her studies at the UW, her mother decided to move with her younger brother to the Suquamish reservation so that they could live among close friends and family.

Gilliam was happy for her mother and brother to be part of a Native community again, but also envious, because she had never had the opportunity.

The way she viewed herself, however, had forever expanded. “I realized that whether I engaged with our culture or not,” she says, “it did not change the fact that my family is Native.”

Gilliam (center front) is a mentor in the Young Executives of Color Program at the Foster School.

She decided to engage. In a big way. With the help of Foster’s Undergraduate Diversity Services, Gilliam “found a supportive community that motivated me to get involved on a deeper level.”

She joined the Native Business Association at Foster. And, to reconnect with and learn more about her Native heritage, last year she joined First Nations @ UW, the intertribal undergraduate organization—just in time to experience its annual Spring Powwow.

“I signed up to volunteer for a few hours,” she recalls. “But after my shift was done, I didn’t want to leave.”

Gilliam was mesmerized by the performances, especially the Grand Entry. She browsed the many Native vendors and sampled the traditional foods. “It was exciting to be part of a team that was able to gather the entire community together,” she says.

The experience motivated her to put her business and communications skills to use. Gilliam is chairing the fundraising committee for this year’s Spring Powwow—the largest student-run event (by budget) at the UW.

A tradition of shared culture

The tradition of powwows was established after Indigenous tribes were forced onto reservations, often confined to the same undesirable territories. Powwows were a means of gathering Native peoples to compete through performance and share each other’s culture and art—in a spirit of respect and unity—during an incredibly dark period of Indigenous history.

The UW Spring Powwow began in 1971. It was originally hosted by the American Indian Student Commission. In 1989, organization of the Powwow turned over to the newly formed First Nations, the primary student organization supporting the development of Native students at the UW.

Some of the colorful regalia and exuberant dancing of a recent First Nations Spring Powwow. Photo by Crazy Crow Trading Post.

The 2023 First Nations Spring Powwow—the 52nd hosted by UW students—takes place Saturday, April 8, at Alaska Airlines Arena.

This convocation of Native people from multiple tribes and nations will feature music, dance, art, crafts and colorful regalia. Indigenous foods, such as fry bread and chili, will be served at concessions. And, as every year, the event will culminate in the Elders’ Dinner, at which students show appreciation for those who have gone before by serving them traditional foods.

All are welcome

Though the First Nations Spring Powwow is a celebration of Native culture, Gilliam emphasizes that the event is not only for Native people.

She adds the notion that Native arts and cultural events are meant to be engaged by Native people alone is a misunderstanding that typically comes from a place of respect from non-Native people. “The reality,” she says, “is that we want the public to be knowledgeable of our cultures and traditions.”

Wider knowledge, she believes, will be vital to the very survival and evolution of North America’s Indigenous people, whose marginalization is comparatively recent in the vast span of their history.

This reality hit home for Gilliam while traveling in Italy, of all places, through the Hovind Global Leaders Program. She was struck by the words of a tour guide, who pointed out that anything occurring in the past 400 years is considered new to Romans, the descendants of an ancient civilization. The insight helped her see the comparatively brief history of the United States in a new perspective.

“In the context of history, the colonization of the United States and Pacific Northwest is extremely new and still being processed by Native communities across the continent,” Gilliam says. “The colonization is new, yet our presence has been diminished so severely that it is common for Americans to believe Indigenous people are historical people, rather than a community that is continuously evolving and learning to thrive in the new nation we’ve been enveloped into.”

The Spring Powwow, the wǝɫǝbʔaltxʷ – Intellectual House, the Native plants of the UW Medicinal Garden, the Guest from the Great River exhibit leading to Indigenous collections at the Burke Museum, the works of Native artists in Founders Hall—all of these are expressions of a living culture on the UW campus. And their creators and curators wish to share them with the broadest audience possible.

“When people from outside our communities put in the effort to attend our events and learn about our cultures, it shows their support for our struggles and gives us solace that our traditions will continue to be taught to younger generations,” Gilliam adds.

“We welcome everyone to attend the First Nations @ UW Spring Powwow and celebrate our cultures with us!”

Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.