When I was invited to lead creative writing classes for elementary school children I discovered that the teachers, the children and their parents had a desire to learn more about American Indians.
Since November is National Native American Heritage month, too often teaching the rich histories of Native Peoples is braided together with Thanksgiving, which does not offer an accurate history of Native America. This limited view also does not humanize the otherwise “vanishing race” and share the stories our people would like told.
The children explained to me that they had few opportunities to meet and talk with American Indian people. Their quest for a deeper understanding then developed into an idea to take the children to a Powwow, and they asked me to lead them into a day of drumming, dance and regalia.
While we planned our journey, thoughtful questions the children, teachers and parents asked allowed me the opportunity to share my perspectives on the importance of dismissing the stereotypes of the stoic warrior, the Indian princess, the uncivilized. I helped them understand that many of the old photographs we see in books are only pictures, and that even in the olden days many American Indians didn’t live the way they looked in the photos. I explained that when American Indian people are compared to these old photographs and stereotypes outsiders often tell us that we don’t look Indian. How do we counter this predominant notion and change the way Native Americans are viewed in popular culture?
My inspiration came from Project 562: Changing The Way We See Native America by Matika Wilbur. Project 562 creatively addresses and remedies historical inaccuracies, stereotypical representations, and the absence of Native American images and voices in mass media, and the national consciousness.
We decided that our starting point, and our goal, for attending the powwow would be to help the children counter stereotypes and increase their core understanding of what it means to be Native American in America today, and to place new authentic and accurate images in their mind.
By no means do I believe that I am an expert regarding powwows, or have expert knowledge of Native American people. Learning is a lifelong pursuit. What I know comes from growing up Native American.
Before we traveled to the powwow I sat down with the children and with their parents, and told them the stories I am sharing with you now. My hope is that if you have never attended a powwow, or have a wish to understand more, and about dismissing the stereotypes, you will feel encouraged.
Powwow is a modern-day word. All of the Elders I know tell me that before the First World War they were called gatherings. After the corn was all dried, pumpkins sliced and the wild plums brought in it was a time for giving thanks. When the food was together for the hard winter months and when the work was all done they gathered. After World War I these “gatherings” were held to honor those servicemen who came back.
Today a powwow is a reunion for many Native families, clans and tribes spread apart in different cities or reservations. There is the exchange of news, ideas, song, and dance, Native fashion, style and art, and it’s a time when Native people reflect on traditions.
Personal Reflection: I am gathered with friends and family under a bead blue sky, my shawl is folded over my arm, and although we’ve been laughing and joking all morning, now we are quiet, silence is our conversation and it tells me more than words. We are careful to sit a safe distance away from Eagle feathers and dance regalia, and we don’t touch anything that belongs to someone else.
A powwow runs on “Indian time” which means that it will begin when all the drums and dancers are ready. When everyone is ready, first there is a Ground Blessing. Then the flag bearer’s lead in with the American flag, the state flag and an Eagle Staff. Next the Grand Entry; the dancers represent many different tribes. After all the dancers are in the arena a Flag Song is sung, a Prayer is offered, followed by a Victory Song. I feel the heartbeat of the drum. Hundreds of Indian people wearing soft moccasins are dancing. Men, and women carrying babies, boys and girls, and the Elders who barely move staying close to the earth.
The drum is one of the oldest memories an American Indian has, it has always been with us, and is the single most important element of a powwow. The dance arena or arbor is sacred and is respected, like the inside of a church. Many Native families travel hundreds of miles to attend powwows across the continent. Time and distance are not relevant; it is the renewal of traditions, which is of paramount importance. It brings a long heritage back into the framework of real life.
While growing up I was taught each person has her or his own personal observance for dancing, drumming, singing and for being present at a powwow. Native people gathered around the arena are not observing — we are participating as we form a circle around the drums, singers and dancers.
Visitors are always welcome, but powwows are an Indian event and are usually not directed toward non-Indians. Listen carefully to the Master of Ceremonies; this is a time for utmost respect. Ask before you photograph.
It is polite to ask permission from the dancers before you take a picture if they are away from the arena. It is necessary to ask because some do not want to be photographed due to our longstanding traditional beliefs. Throughout the day I ask the children to close their eyes, and listen to the drums, and to imagine what it might have been like hundreds of years ago.
Multiple times throughout the day I also take the children to meet my friends, so that they will have an opportunity to see and talk with American Indian fathers holding sleeping babies, and American Indian mothers laughing, while braiding their children’s hair. I want them to see happy Indians laughing and joking with each other. Humor is an important American Indian cultural trait. We believe it is of key importance not only to laugh, but to also be able to laugh at ourselves. I want the kids to see American Indian children eating popcorn, being silly and playing the same games all children play. And then they had an opportunity to see those same children change into their dance regalia, have their hair braided, faces painted, and prepare to dance.
I want to provide stepping-stones for the children so they can begin to see that American Indian people have respect for our traditional ways, and that we are also real people too, who drive cars, and work as doctors and teachers. To show the children that American Indian mothers and fathers are also regular moms and dads who cook dinner, help their children with their homework, play baseball, and go out for pizza, and that we are not relics from the past.
Most of all I want the children to understand that Native Americans are Native Americans, even when we are not dressed in beadwork and feathers.
I tell the kids that we are here to honor the past and be proud of our future. I share with them the stories my grandmothers told me about how each person is a link to history, and that when it comes to powwows some Native people chose to become drummers, others become dancers, but even those of us who are watching and listening, that every American Indian person at the powwow is connected, and is making a statement that American Indian people are still here. This is our celebration of life past, present and future.
First published at Speak Mom.
Author’s Note: Native American? Or, American Indian?
There is no agreement among Native peoples. Both are used.
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