Harnessing Pow Wows

Amy Moore & Mike Taylor

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.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




Two Bears Growling's picture
These are far from the only reasons we are seeing a decline in interest of our ways being taught to others. What I find that seems to be the reason is that so many of our people of differing ages have so embrased the washichu culture through the many decades. We are going to have to immerse our youngsters 100% in our traditional ways. Immerse our people from day one into our ancestors ways. We are going to have to stop listening to the hip-hop nonsense, all music but our traditional music, etc. We are going to have to stop watching what everyone around us is doing that is popular for the moment. We are going to have to have our ways taught in OUR schools with OUR elders & teachers of the ways of the ancestors. Most importantly, our elders & parents are going to have to live the example if there is to be any hope at all at saving our cultures from extinction. Our people are going to have to get off their rears & stop watching TV & start getting active again in our traditional ways. Throw out the video games, white music, rap music, etc. Revive our spiritual ceremonies where ALL attend & learn our ancient customs, songs & rituals. Start promoting pride in OUR traditions instead of every other culture but our own. We are also going to have to start eating the things our people once did instead of this diet of death of the white culture: Chips, sodas, candy & all sorts of other non-native foods. It's no wonder our people in so many places are in the bad health they are over the past 50 plus years. Another thing, we have got to take control of our families & stop all the disrespect going on. I get so tired of hearing & seeing parents having to call tribal police because youngsters have gotten out of control. What happened to parents to where they can't control their children anymore? What happened to the traditional discipline parents & elders used to use? Have you forgot it? I haven't. Don't be afraid to make your kids mind regardless of how old they are. Show respect in how you live each day. Set the example of what it means to be honorable. Remember, these young folks are watching you as well. Don't be going out getting drunk or high & expect them to stay sober & drug-free if you can't live as you should be. Live a life of honor, respect, decency, kindness, compassion & love. Love your children enough to set the examples they need to see that teaches what it means to be a good woman or man. Love your family by showing them you are respectable by NOT drinking, not using drugs & living in a shameful way. Love your people by bringing pride to them instead of a life that bring shame. Remember, what we do in our lives is like a pond you throw a rock into that ripples & affects everything & everyone. Be that light that shines in the darkness for all to see.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
My family will be visiting the Safari in March possible between 11th. to the 15th. Maybe just spending one night in a Chakee. We have spent one night there and my grands. say it is the best vacation they've ever had. I am from Alabama and am a Native American decendent of another tribe. I will be bringing my mother who is 85 and is Native on both her mother and dads side. I would love to know more about the Pow Wows and if it is possible for us to attend. The swamp buggy ride was all our favorite. The food was incredible and was very fairly priced. We love the park. I'll be working on learning the language. So sad that people are not still learning the crafts, language and ways of the tribe. It is so important not to lose the past. The past just may be our means of survival in our future and our grands. Thank you
Anonymous's picture
I would like to say thank you for this story it hits close to home, that is exactly what we have been trying to do here. Taking the lead and instilling pride in who and what we stand for is important. Way to go Walmart Barry !! Moreena Rocha Chavez 03-03/13
Anonymous's picture
I like really like this story and especially Wal-Mart Barry! This does speak a very real truth in our tribal communities and about making sure our culture and traditions continue on. I feel powwow could be that potential opportunities to have our native people and youth become more knowledgeable about their culture and traditions. My only concern is would this work for every tribe, because you mention Kachina Doll carving, which is from my people the Hopi senom. Kachina doll carving is a very cultural and traditional practice among my people that I feel would not be comfortable setting. For Hopi’s and other pueblos powwow isn’t so much apart of our people. However, for other tribes this could be an opportunity for their people. Overall, we need to find solutions to get our youth interested about their culture and traditions, we can’t let our youth continue to be influence by the dominate society because thoughts are not the values of our people. Because our culture and traditions all relates back to who we are and where we come from.
Anonymous's picture
Going to share to Redbird's page...
Anonymous's picture
Good to know that the participation at our school districts Indian Education events are facing the same participation problems that other communities do. We have 4-5 families involved where we could have 20. As long as those that want to learn the 'old ways' keep showing up, traditions will be picked up and passed down.