American Indian women drop powwow lawsuit against St. Thomas

The group of American Indian women who were not allowed to compete in the drumming and singing portion of the annual University of St. Thomas powwow last November have decided to drop their suit against the university.

The six women, members of the Sweetgrass Road Drum Group from the Winnipeg, Manitoba, area, had filed a civil suit in Ramsey County District Court. Represented by Minneapolis attorney Jordan Kushner, the women sought a court ruling that would allow them to compete in drum competitions at future St. Thomas powwows.

In documents filed with the court, the women claimed that the university violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act and caused them to suffer “extreme emotional distress, pain and suffering, humiliation and embarrassment, harm to their reputations and other losses and damages.”

After a Ramsey County District Court judge denied the university’s request to dismiss the case last May, the university decided “with deep regret” to cancel what would have been the 15th annual powwow on its campus this November.

In a letter to St. Thomas, Kushner said he was informed by the women drummers that they no longer wished to pursue the case because their primary objective of being able to participate in the powwow cannot be achieved.

One member of the group, Raven Hart-Bellecourt, is the daughter of Vernon Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement.

St. Thomas’ attorney, Phyllis Karasov, said the judge dismissed the case “with prejudice,” which means that the women cannot in the future sue the university over the powwow drumming issue.

The order of dismissal was entered Oct. 5 by Ramsey County District Court Judge Paulette Flynn.

Over the past 14 years the St. Thomas powwow had become one of the largest in the Upper Midwest. It was supported by the university and organized by the Powwow Committee to help foster American Indian traditions, to help share those traditions with the university and the community, and to provide a gathering event for American Indians from throughout the country.

It was held in November to provide an economic boost to powwow participants just prior to the winter months. Over the past 14 years, the powwow has contributed more than half a million dollars directly to members of the American Indian community, primarily through prize money and salaries paid to those who provide support services for the event.

The event drew between 4,000 and 5,000 participants from throughout the United States and Canada. The powwow included both dance and drum competitions. Women, however, participated in various dance categories only.

The drum is a sacred object in American Indian culture and, according to traditions followed by the St. Thomas Powwow Committee, only men are allowed to participate in powwow drumming. Most members of the Powwow Committee are American Indians. They are volunteers and come from several different tribes in the Upper Midwest.

Last May, Dr. Judith Dwyer, executive vice president of St. Thomas, said the university was canceling the 2002 powwow because of the unresolved litigation and “because we are unwilling to sponsor an event that is inconsistent with the traditions and sacred beliefs held by members of the Powwow Committee and the broader American Indian community.”

“That women cannot play the drums is a long-standing tradition for American Indians,” she said. “The university supports the right of American Indians to follow their traditions.”

Dwyer today reaffirmed the university’s decision to cancel the powwow.

While the Sweetgrass suit was dismissed, she said the university could be the target of similar suits.

“We are canceling the powwow to avoid the potential for future legal action,” she said. “St. Thomas does not want to find itself involved in further litigation relating to the religious traditions of American Indians.”

The university, Dwyer emphasized, will continue to offer educational programs to help students, faculty and the community respect and appreciate American Indian culture.

For example, last year all St. Thomas freshmen read The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, a popular American Indian author who came to campus to give public lectures and visit classes.

In addition to the powwow, other campus events last year included: a program that explained the significance of powwows and American Indian music, dress and foods; an exhibit of art by American Indian women; a poetry reading by St. Thomas faculty member Heid Erdrich; a performance by an Aztec dance troupe; a choral concert of American Indian music; and a film, “Naturally Native,” produced by American India
n women.