Harnessing Pow Wows

For an Indian, Barry seems to need very little sleep. He works nights, even on weekends. During the day, he seems to practically live at Walmart, which has earned him the nickname Walmart Barry. He never does any of his shopping at Walmart though, because his mother does all the shopping for the family.

“What are you doing here?,” we asked Walmart Barry.

“I like to come here because I am guaranteed to run into ten or more Indians at Wal-Mart. Wal-Marts out here are pretty, not like the Wal-Marts back East. This is my Starbucks!” He slaps me hard on the back, adding with a laugh, “Are you forgetting my Indian name is Walmart Barry?"

“Why don't you go down to the rez instead?,” we asked.

“Because people are locked up in their homes. And because I don't drink. After a night's hard work, if I go down to the rez, I will probably start drinking again.”

“How about going to the tribal office or the tribal library?”

“There's only the secretary at the tribal office. Everyone else is behind the new security doors. The library is locked because people steal books and you need to make an appointment to read books, so no one hangs out there. The tribal computers ban all my favorite sites. The only place I am guaranteed to meet at least ten Indians is at Wal-Mart. See, I have already met you both today – eight more to go! This is the Gathering of Nations. Wal-Mart's the place to meet Indians.”

And pow wows. Walmart Barry is forgetting pow wows. He never misses a powwow within an eight-hour driving distance. That's exactly why pow wows are so popular: they give us a venue to meet other Indians, to sell our wares, to make new friends and to renew old bonds. Some Indians make a living off the powwow trail. Some live only for powwows. For almost all of us, especially the little ones, pow wows are a great source of excitement. Pow wows bring families and friends together, they unify us, they reinvigorate us, they make us “feel” more Indian, and they are a source of spiritual and emotional renewal.

But Indian Nations are not taking full advantage of the powwow phenomenon. When we went down to our language class on the rez, the only person who was sitting there was the language instructor. “I offer seven short sessions a year and still nobody attends, not even the children,” she said in dismay. A medicine man was upset because hardly anyone had shown up for his tribe's Green Snake Ceremony and the Headwoman of the tribe went into a depression because only a newspaper reporter and one other family had shown up. When Donna teaches Indian beading, no one bothers to attend – even with free pizza as an incentive. When Mrs. Green held a workshop on making cradle boards, only three women showed up. Whether it is a workshop that teaches you how to make moccasins, how to craft a talking stick or how to survive in the wilderness like our ancestors, attendance tends to be negligible. It's the same story with many tribes, whether in the US or Canada. Our cultures are disappearing and our traditions are dying. Our traditional medicinal knowledge is fast disappearing. We are losing everything at an alarming rate. We are just so focused on paying our bills, on finding the next meal, on taking grandma for her dialysis or on merely surviving in a colonized environment.

This is exactly where pow wows can help. We should infuse every powwow with culture booths sponsored by our tribes and funded by obvious sources. In one booth, we could have our aging traditional singers teach youngsters our salt songs; hardly anyone knows how to sing them any more. Another booth could be dedicated to Indian sign language, which is on the way to extinction. Elders could talk about how they were raised, the prayers, the funerals, and raising children the Indian way. There could be hands-on demonstrations showing the process of tanning an elk hide from start to finish. Other booths could focus on traditional basketry skills, cooking ancestral dishes, constructing an igloo, wood carving skills, making Kachina dolls, our oral histories, traditional music instruments, sandpaintings, throat singing, making a traditional bow and arrow, making a fire using sticks, tracking animals using paw prints in the snow, shellwork, crafting a coup stick, quillwork, string games, stick games, whistled speech, carving a mishoon. All these, and many other traditions, are in grave danger of being lost forever. Pow wows have the potential to revive them.

We mentioned the idea of infusing every powwow with cultural education to Walmart Barry. His eyes lit up. And he had an interesting take on it. He said that at one time, the federal government invested hundreds of millions of dollars into eradicating our cultures, so now the government needs to undo the damage, take a proactive role in preserving our cultures and traditions. Our tribes, together with funding from various sources, even the federal gov’t, can harness the opportunity powwows provide, and use powwows to reinvigorate our cultures, languages and traditions.

Dr. Amy Moore is a professor, currently on sabbatical, who is passionate about saving as many Native American languages as possible. If anyone would like to learn Ojibwe online and accumulate university credits in the process, they are encouraged to contact Amy at amymoore999@gmail.com. Mike Taylor can be reached at nungwunts@gmail.com.

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