Yesterday I attended the Chumash Intertribal Powwow in St. Inez, my first powwow in California. I have attended powwows in Wisconsin, Montana and Arizona, but never in my new home state. To get there, I had to travel the foothills of the St. Inez Mountains, hence the above photo from a handy “Vista Site”. Because this was an intertribal powwow, drummers, singers and participants in the dance competitions came from tribal communities throughout the US and Canada.
The dictionary defines a powwow as “a North American Indian ceremony involving feasting, singing and dancing”. This one had all three, in the 2023 version. Feasting was provided by an array of food trucks and stands, singing (and drumming) provided by a group of professional Native American drummers, and dancing provided in a constant succession of competitions for all categories of dance and dancer. Regalia is central to the dance, often elaborate, always colorful, and age groups from the very young to the old compete in a continuous cycle of dances.
At this powwow, on the edge of the central area for the dance competitions, there were two large cordoned off areas with tarp covers to protect from the sun and with chairs for sitting and watching the dance competition. There was a large sign rising over the tarps “Reserved for Tribal Elders”. And they were there, and they were engaged. Occasionally a young person would come to one or another elder and deliver drinks or food. This powwow also had numerous booths where merchants were selling their wares, primarily clothing and jewelry.
Attending powwows is a dimension of a larger interest (some would say preoccupation) I have had since early adulthood focused on understanding the Native American cultures and communities, history and experiences. More specifically, I became troubled by the seeming total denial of the US culture about its early history of claiming this land largely through genocide of the humans already here, humans who already calling this home, already were humans “of the land”. “We” arrived and claimed it, and in many ways, damaged the land we took from the native tribes who had lived here for centuries without harming the land.
As someone engaged in a variety of roles and actions related to social justice, and in particular to our nation’s endless drift toward racism, I was always confused by our sole focus on slavery and our concurrent ignoring or denial of genocide. We often hear people proclaim that slavery is our country’s “original sin”. I could never figure out why genocide didn’t warrant billing as an equally horrendous aspect of our origins.
I don’t really understand this non-admission, which always looks to me like a “blind spot”. We often seem to act like it is unfortunate, but no big deal. Our fixation on naming sports teams some of our favorite racial slurs about Native Americans and then insisting we mean no harm and thus should get to keep these names personifies for me the confused insight we collectively seem to have about genocide. It has often seemed to me that the western movie genre, and more specifically John Wayne’s contribution to it have been treated not as fiction but as some organized accurate historical documentary. Strangely, to challenge this is often viewed as “unpatriotic”!
This entire dynamic started making me restive when I was quite young, I think because it seemed so bizarre to me. How could a nation commit systematic and deliberate genocide and pretend it had not done so? How could a nation force the tribal remnants of a nation of people into confined spaces, usually spaces unattractive for other uses, then break their word to the remnants of a people trying to establish their rights? How could a nation ignore the horror of this aspect of its history, trying to pretend it away? How did people find a way to rationalize something as horrendous as genocide? Why do we not see it, and own it as part of our history?
I did what I often do when I am frustrated. I purchased many many books, created a library of books helping me understand the history, the genocide, the remaining tribal peoples, the strange negotiations with the US government, and perhaps most important, the wise elders of the various tribes and their shared wisdom. I visited many reservations in many parts of the US, trying to learn more, and asked my Native American colleagues to educate me. Many helped, but also left me with the sense that our national denial had the upper hand and kept winning.
I also participated in numerous educational programs or workshops. Some seemed to quietly exploit the wisdom of Native American communities. That was distressing and made me cautious. I started feeling more wary, and my Native American friends supported my caution.
Because I did some projects with the Indian Health Service and some Native American Colleges, I have had the privilege of more direct engagement, and have felt the chasm between “white America” and the Native American community. Objectively, as long as the denial of genocide persists, trusting “white folks” seems unwise. I have been the “only white person” in the room or at the table often enough that I know the sense of caution I can evoke: it is never stronger for me then when the gathering is Native American: warm, gracious, forgiving even, but clearly not trusting.
I have no wisdom about how to solve all this. The first and most obvious to me is the need to include in our understanding of our history that the early immigrants to this country engaged in genocide in order to take the land from the people who already lived here. When they fought back, we called them “savages” and “pagans”. We created a rationalization about them as dangerous and violent. We even invoked our bizarre “color coding” fixation, labeling them “red” (which is not “white”). We lied to them. We infected them. We capitalized on their vulnerability to the disease of alcoholism. We corralled them into small plots of land called “reservations” where they were to live and concurrently limited their options for a full life. We persist in most of this.
I think I go to powwows in the role of Witness. I do not see myself solving any of this in any magic way. I do stand in the presence of those in the powwow as one affirming their lives, their culture, their intrinsic worth and value. It is a silent honoring and feels small and ineffective. Yet to fail to do it seems even worse, so I go to powwows. I am not Native American and work to avoid the “white” imitation of Native American practices as if native to me. They are not. They are, however, powerful in their own right, and I often wonder what might happen if the flow between wisdoms of Native American elders and elders from other cultures were more actively pursued. Where it has been done it has been powerful. Anyone can help make this happen. You could start with a powwow: https://www.powwows.com
I purchased a silver ring at one of the powwow booths. It had a pattern of ocean waves which will remind me of flow, continuous change, and impermanence. It was a good powwow.
“The Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world; a world filled with broken promises, selfishness, and separations; a world longing for light again.
I see a time of Seven Generations when all the colors of mankind will gather under the Sacred Tree of Life and the whole Earth will become one circle again.
In that day, there will be those among the Lakota who will carry the knowledge and understanding of unity among all living things and the young white ones will come to those of my people and ask for this wisdom.
I salute the light within your eyes where the whole universe dwells. For when you are at that center within you and I am that place within me, we shall be one.”
- Crazy Horse (1840-1977) – Oglala Lakota Sioux
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