Bles Blesilda Carmona for the week of April 23-29, 2014
UP CLOSE AND POWWOW-ERSONAL
Everybody remembers their first time: I had the honor of attending the annual powwow held at the Outdoor East and West Quad on the UC Davis campus last Saturday with my youngest sister Edna and her partner Joe. A powwow is a gathering of Native American people, celebrating the traditions and contributions of indigenous people and cultures. The word comes from “powwaw” of Narragansett origin, which means “spiritual leader.” The UC Davis powwow is now on its 42nd year and is largely made possible because of the cooperation among the school’s Cross Cultural Center, UC Davis Student Affairs, and the surrounding tribal organizations, as well as certain groups that could provide volunteers, funds, and insurance. The UC Davis student-organized and student-run powwow is one of the longest running student powwows in California. Through the years, this specific powwow has become the culminating event for the university’s Native American Culture Days events and programs.
Basically, the Master of Ceremonies (MC) is tasked with keeping the singers, dancers, and general public informed as to what is happening. The MC sets the schedule of events and in the case of the drum groups which usually accompany the dancers, the MC keeps track of the drum rotation. In this UC Davis powwow with Tom Phillips as MC, there were two host drums: the Host Northern Drum “All Nations” and the Host Southern Drum “Red Horse.” Both of these groups were composed of six or more men in regalia who take turns performing the music, singing, and beating on the special drum in the middle of their circle. The drum and singers are followed by the dancers who are truly the heart and soul of this day-long powwow. There is a particular sequence in how the participants enter the dance arena for the Grand Entry or parade of dancers that opens a powwow: the Head Dancers (Head Man, Woman, Teens, Little Boy and Girl, and Golden Age) and a Head Gourd Dancer. The Grand Entry of the Head Staff is followed by the remaining dancers in a specific order: Men’s Traditional, Grass Dance, and Fancy; and then Women’s Traditional, Jingle, and Fancy; teens and children follow in the same order.
For us first timers, we were very mindful of any unspoken rules or protocols in place in our honest effort to understand what we are witnessing. For instance, we were not supposed to call the special clothes they wear as a “costume” — these are correctly referred to as “regalia.” Since the event is free and open to the public, the public is encouraged to be generous in several ceremonies involving a red clothing spread, drums, dancers, and friendly handshakes. There was a contribution ceremony for the family whose head of the household has died, and another one in appreciation of both the Red Horse and All Nations Drums.
Of course I and my two companions were so impressed about the vivid colors of the Native American regalia because that’s what will initially stand out. However, the longer we observed this powwow from the closest circle to the dance arena (as close as we dared), we began noticing other things as well. The men wear more color-rich regalia than the women do and they are “allowed” to perform more motion-intensive dance movements rather than the simple sidesteps for women. During these powwows, one of the main highlights is the dance contest and we saw various contests according to the Grand Entry order of gender and regalia classification while the MC makes sure to rotate the singing/drumming/music between the Northern and Southern Drums. There was even a “switch dance” competition where the males will dress as females and then dance that way, and also for females to dress as males and dance accordingly. The MC said that this specific contest was in honor of one its allies at UC Davis, the “Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center,” under the aegis of the UC Davis Cross Cultural Center. There were a couple of instances when the public was invited within the dance arena for the welcome dance or the friendship dance, and there was also a call going out to all the recent UC Davis graduates — and other graduates from any college from any place at all. They were acknowledged and recognized by the crowd.
At this point, we remarked about how “inclusive” the Native American culture was. Sure they have ceremonies that set them apart and are a source of pride for them, but there’s always a part of that ritual where the “others-who-are-not-like-them” are allowed to participate, ending these others’ superficial role as mere spectators. We admitted that up to this point, this powwow was the very first actual experience we had of Native American culture. Prior to this, my frame of reference was just Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic, “Dances with Wolves,” which by the way, at least characterized Native Americans more humanely, with dignity and grace lacking in previous Hollywood stereotypical portrayals.
Why do we know about Native Americans only through television and film? Well, this is because they comprise such a small percentage of America’s total population. In the 2010 Census, from a total U.S. population of 308.7 million on April 1, 2010, only 5.2 million or 1.7% reported their racial heritage as “American Indian or Alaska Native,” the official identifier of the Census (Reference: Census 2010 Brief, “The American Indian and Alaska Native: 2010,” published January 2012).
The Census 2010 Brief also noted that of all respondents who reported American Indian and Native Alaskan heritage, 40.7% lived in the West, 32.8% lived in the South, 16.8% lived in the Midwest, and 9.7% lived in the Northeast. The states with the largest American Indian population, in order, were: 1. California, 2. Oklahoma, 3. Arizona, 4. Texas, 5. New York. It’s no wonder, then, that some of the best and publicized powwows can be found here in our state, plus they have a Gathering of the Nations at the University of New Mexico in the fall, among many others.
Tribal affiliation was also asked during the 2010 Census. The Census 2010 Brief reports that the largest American Indian Tribal Groupings in 2010 are (in order): 1. Cherokee, 2. Navajo, 3. Choctaw, 4. Mexican American Indian, 5. Chippewa, 6. Sioux, 7. Apache, 8. Blackfeet,
9. Creek, and 10. Iroquois.
Alaska Native tribal Groups in 2010 were also ranked in order based on population: 1. Yup’ik, 2. Inupiat, 3. Tlingit-Haida, 4. Alaskan Athabascan, 5. Aleut, 6. Tsimshian. The overall trend is that of an increase in population from 2000 to 2010, even if we look at it from the classification of the American Indian and Alaska Native alone – an increase of 18%; or from the perspective of the American Indian and Alaska Native alone-or-in-combination – an increase of 27% from 2000 to 2010.
Obviously, the Native Americans are in the minority right now but there was once a time when they owned the land. No, let me correct that: they did not even have the white man’s concept of “land ownership” because the natives felt one with the land and couldn’t conceive of having to fence it off in parcels to be taken away from them through devious means by the usurpers. Now the Native Americans are consigned to remote reservations. They struggle to get educated so they can help their families and their respective nations.
Our Native American sisters and brothers are fighting to have a voice in our multicultural American society. For us Filipino-Americans, may we also be reminded to honor the voices of those whom we now consider “minorities” in the Philippines but who were actually its original inhabitants long before we ever set foot on it.
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