Not once in my 43 years has anyone ever asked me to join them in the arena at a Powwow. I hear the call for the intertribal. I watch people make their way to the floor. I sit tucked safely in the bleachers. Part of me is grateful that no one notices. Part of me longs to be there. Most of me is fascinated watching people. It’s this conflict that has been going on for a long time.

It’s that time of year when we will gather together for social and spiritual events. For some of us, being involved and getting involved is wrought with confusion, insecurity, and tentativeness. If you’ve not grown up around these occasions, then you may wonder whether to participate or not. I’m here to tell you, PARTICIPATE.   

As I prepared to write about Powwows this month, I was trying to remember when I learned about them. I learned about a powwow from a guest speaker during Culture Class during grade school. I attended St. Francis Indian School during the years, it was transitioning from a mission school run by the priests, Jesuits, and nuns to a tribally run school.

I learned about Powwows from a guest speaker in Culture Class! It’s sad really. I was born and raised on a rural reservation in South Dakota. Sit with this. My story is not unusual.  

My parents “shielded” us from everything and anything Native. My parents were products of the Catholic school mission. They were protecting us, my siblings and me, from the feelings of loss that would occur, if we learned. They kept us away from as much as they could.

It was my maternal grandmother who would sneak us to ceremony. She’d sneak her grandkids to ceremonies! I remember when we got home, if we got caught, my parents would be angry with her. There would be lots of screaming and loud talking in Lakota. Eventually, my grandmother would be sitting there quietly while tears rolled down her cheeks.

My mother was angry with her. My mother believed she was protecting us kids, that there was no need for us to know any of that stuff. When I tried to comfort my grandmother, she’d brush me off. She’d tell me in Lakota to go play and it was adults talking.

I could feel her sadness. I remember her tears. Tears I didn’t understand. Eventually, as an adult, I’d go against my parents. They were angry with me to begin with, that I spent too much time learning about stuff I didn’t need to know. They were angry when I began to participate in our traditional ways. Eventually, in time, my parents became supportive. In time, my mother helped me prepare for ceremony.

As I found my way back into the circle of Native people, it was difficult. Insecurity and confusion were my familiar friends. People assumed I knew what to do, but I didn’t. When I would ask childish questions, I would get a perplexed look. I’d have to explain my background and my intention to learn.  

Part of my returning to the circle was reconciling living in mainstream America and being educated in American educational systems, but not knowing anything about my cultural ways. In time, I discovered that although my parents kept us away from ceremonies, they lived their life in accordance to our traditional way. They just never spoke about it. They kept our way of life alive by living it and they kept it safe by not speaking about it.

Now, I may look a little spazzy and out of rhythm, but I dance. I may shuffle my feet trying to find the rhythm, but I’m dismantling the emotional and spiritual shackles I’ve unknowingly inherited. I may look stiff, but I am actively trying to return my spirit to my body. There are moments that I feel it. I feel myself be whole once again. It is from this place that I feel joy and pride. One day, my spirit and our way of living and being will rest in my body.

So, for those of you who are familiar with our traditional ways, reach out to those of us who need a hand. Welcome us back. Encourage us. Help us remember our majesty. Remind us who we are meant to be. If you hear someone snicker, or someone who displays their insecurity, stop them. We need help finding our way.

Now, I enjoy my time at a powwow. I see many people I know and adore. I feel the calling of the drum. It is a reminder for me that we’ve come a long way. I can feel the Ancestors smiling with satisfaction. I’m filled with pride watching young people participate. We’ve come a long way and survived a lot. 

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