More than 2,000 students gasped and cheered as the Tafiti Samoan Fireknife Dancers twirled flaming sticks, threw the spinning sticks into the air and caught them effortlessly, to the beat of a large circular drum.
The students who gathered for Youth Day at the United Tribes International Powwow listened to traditional music played on a wooden flute, observed a hoop dance in which a man created shapes and formations with multiple hoops, and listened to reigning Miss Indian Nations Shanoa Pinkham tell the story “Wormy Face.”
Kapeneta Suli Te’o-Tafiti, who led the fire performance, showed students how to crack open a coconut with a large stick and led a contest in which four male teachers attempted to start fires by furiously rubbing two sticks together.
Te’o-Tafiti had men compete in the contest because, in Samoa, men do the cooking, he told the students.
Julie Cain, chairwoman of the powwow committee and the director of the chemical health center at UTTC, said all of the fourth-grade classrooms in Bismarck and Mandan were invited to attend the event Friday.
More than 2,000 students were registered for the Youth Day and 843 of them are fourth-graders, she said.
“This is the biggest crowd (of students) we’ve ever had,” she said.
Cain said Youth Day teaches students about Native American culture.
This year marks the 43rd United Tribes International Powwow and Youth Day has been part of the event for about 20 years, she said.
“We have spectacular performers of all mediums that perform,” she said, noting that the main messages of Youth Day remain the same every year: to respect others and to honor oneself.
“By seeing and touching ... just being here teaches them so much,” she said.
Haley Haugen, a fourth-grade teacher at Miller Elementary, said the fourth-graders study North Dakota Native American culture specifically.
“I think (attending the event) makes things real for children,” she said.
Haugen said her students watched hoop dancer Wayne Fox dance at the Belle Mehus auditorium a day earlier.
“They loved his performance. I think they were very impressed with his regalia and ... seeing something we’ve read about take place in person,” she said.
Angelo Zambo, 8, was one of 78 fourth-graders from Miller Elementary attending the event. “It was very awesome how they juggle and weren’t able to get themselves on fire,” he said of the fire dancers.
Angelo said he also learned how to say “dog” and “bear” in a Native American language.
Nine-year-old Sarah Fleming of Centennial said she learned to respect other cultures. Her favorite part of the day was watching the fire dancers put fire in their mouths and climb on each other’s backs.
Megan Klein, 9, of Centennial, said she liked the way the fire dancers were “throwing it up and spinning it all over.” Paige Keller, 10, of Centennial liked when the dancers froze during the drum beats.
Justin Miller, a fifth-grade teacher at Solheim Elementary, said all of the school’s fourth- and fifth-graders were attending the event.
“It exposes them (the students) to something they’re maybe not used to,” he said.
Miller was one of the four teachers who attempted to start fire using two sticks. Miller described the experience as fun but difficult.
“I was super close to getting it finished and then the log rolled at the last second and I lost it,” he said.
This year’s contestants for Miss Indian Nations took turns doing activities with the students.The contestants were judged on their ability to get the students engaged in the activities, Cain said.
In the first activity, students raced to strap stuffed animals to cradle boards, put the boards on their backs and skip backward to the beat of the drum back to their places. The students were able to keep the stuffed animals if they could say one thing they had learned at Youth Day.
Miller said his students were having fun while being exposed to something new.
“They love it. Every one of them is having an absolute blast,” he said.
Reach Mara Van Ells at 701-250-8251 or email@example.com