He grew up in a place where he says it wasn’t cool to be Native American.
Now, he’s helping to plan and organize an event growing in scope and scale every year that celebrates Native American culture and ancestry – Portland Community College’s Eighth Annual Winter Powwow "Wacipi."
"I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah where our emphasis on our heritage was rudely halted or disparaged," said Nate Salazar. "It is a Mormon city and my sister and I were the only brown kids. I got into fights and learned at an early age what racism was."
Salazar’s ancestry comes from the Jicarilla Apache and Yaqui nations. The two are based in Arizona, New Mexico and north Mexico, respectively. It’s why he is proud to help the organizing committee put on this year’s powwow.
"It’s an important thing because only recently, maybe the past 10 years, it has become cool to be American-Indian," Salazar said. "I’m not sure why, but it’s important to open people’s eyes to stereotypes they have. The powwow can break those down and show people how we celebrate the seasons, community, food and life."
This year’s powwow will run from noon to 11 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 20 in the gymnasium on the Sylvania Campus. Admission and parking are free. The powwow features the first grand entry at 1 p.m., a community dinner at 5:30 p.m. and a second grand entry at 7 p.m. Main attractions include Master of Ceremony David West, Potawatomi Nation, Miami, and Kickapoo; Color Guard from the Northwest Indian Veterans Association; Native American dancing, drumming, merchandise vendors, fry bread and food booths.
"I love the overall energy of a powwow," said Salazar, who is organizing the volunteers and vendors through the Multicultural Center at the Sylvania Campus. "I enjoy watching the dancers and how all of the roles of people inside a community come together. The powwow brings it to a level that everyone can relate to."
There will be a College Fair, representing local colleges and universities, from noon to 5 p.m. in the lobby of the HT Building. American Sign Language and Plains Indian Sign Language interpreters will be available during the event.
Salazar has been through a lot. At a young age, he had to help his sister, who battled and survived the metabolic disorder Gaucher’s disease (she is now working on her law degree in Utah). He also fought with kids throughout his school days in Utah over his ethnicity and admits he has a short fuse. Even though Salazar thought that he wasn’t the greatest candidate for college, he made the commitment to get his degree, and traveled to Oregon with a friend to eventually enroll at PCC. It was a decision he doesn’t regret.
"It’s really important for me because since I came to Portland in 2004 I have gotten closer to my Indian heritage," he said. "It’s given me a sense to reclaim what has been lost over the years."
Since he started at the college in 2004, he’s been an active volunteer. Besides his work with the Multicultural Center, he was a student in the Illumination Project. The project is a student leadership and campus climate program designed to address issues of oppression through interactive classroom and community performances utilizing interactive theater. He was a student educator and program assistant helping to coordinate skits designed to force the audience to face their own perceived stereotypes and be proactive enough to fight racism when they see it.
When he finishes with PCC, Salazar plans to use his sociology focus at PCC and enroll at Johnson State College in Vermont to pursue a political science degree. Beyond that, he says anything is possible, including a law degree.
But one thing is for sure. He’d like to remain involved in the community and help break down more barriers of racism.
"It’s important to know that those feelings of racism are still out there," Salazar said. "But today I use my personality and my voice instead of my fists."
For more information on this year’s powwow, please contact the Sylvania Multicultural Center at 503-977-4112.