As Thomas Bearstail walked along the perimeter of the Lone Star Arena at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, his classmates and other students turned around to admire his brightly colored regalia, which had bells that chimed with every step he took.
"Thomas!" one student yelled and waived. He smiled and waived back. The students stared at Thomas' clothing, something many of them had probably never seen before.
Thomas, a fourth-grader at Bismarck's Lincoln Elementary School, was one of several young dancers who performed for local students on Friday at United Tribes Technical College International Powwow. Each year, fourth-grade classes in Bismarck and Mandan attend a special event for youth prior to the kick-off of the powwow.
"Some of these kids don’t get to see this," said Margaret Landin, whose son, Elijah, 12, and daughter, Sophie, 8, danced for the crowd. "This is the first time that they ever go out to a powwow or see the culture besides hearing about it in their classroom."
The powwow is tied to North Dakota history curriculum in fourth grade, and it serves as an educational field trip for students.
"With Native people making up nearly 9 percent of our student body, and the story and the culture of Native people being such a big part of who we collectively are as a state, this, to me, is the best eyes-on, ears-open opportunity to learn rather than learning from a textbook," said Bismarck Public Schools Superintendent Tamara Uselman.
Schools in the neighboring state of Montana also have students attend powwows each year. The state has a law called Indian Education for All, which requires students learn about Native American culture. North Dakota is also planning to integrate Native American culture and history into curriculum, though it is not tied to state law.
About 1,100 Bismarck students attended the event on Friday. Students from Light of Christ Catholic Schools in Bismarck and Mandan Public Schools attended, as well. This year, the turnout exceeded what organizers had expected; more than 1,500 students crowded bleachers and sat on the grass inside the arena for the event.
“It’s a pathway into the community, and it’s a way of learning about other cultures," said Sam Azure, principal of the Theodore Jamerson Elementary School on the UTTC campus, which partners with BPS to put on the program each year.
Azure said the powwow is also an opportunity for people to learn more about United Tribes and Native American history and to get people out to the college to learn about activities going on there.
"It’s a great thing that happens once a year," he said.
The day began Friday with a short history lesson from UTTC instructor Dakota Goodhouse, who explained the history of Native Americans in the area dating back to 1863. Then, students cheered for the Native American hoop dancing routine. After that, Bismarck students danced for the audience, and then all students jumped in to learn various styles of dances.
“(The powwow) reinforces that idea that we’re not historical people; we’re still here. We still have a vibrant culture that we want the kids to experience," said Chadwick Kramer, coordinator of BPS office of Indian Education and enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
The event also helps Native American students explore their culture with their peers. Last year, during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, the youth event had a lower turnout of around 800 students. Kramer said he spoke with a BPS employee and enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians whose fourth-grade daughter’s class did not attend the powwow last year. The employee's daughter, who had wanted to share her culture with her classmates, was disappointed.
"I think it is a source of pride for our students to share their culture, and it probably starts those discussions at an earlier age," Kramer said.
The powwow continues through Sunday. For more information, visit www.unitedtribespowwow.com.