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A Shenandoah warrior stands outside Oakland's Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center smoking a Marlboro Light. The downy feathers that accent his headdress ruffle slightly as a breeze crosses the vast, concrete parking lot. He squints into the sun, takes one long final drag, and, with a flick of his slender, cinnamon-brown fingers, sends the glowing butt sailing against the pale blue sky. From inside, the beating of the host drum groups, Wild Horse and No Name Drum, marks the beginning of the Flag Song and Invocation. It's a beautiful day for the 10th annual Silver Star Powwow & Indian Market hosted by the American Indian Film Institute -- something of a shame, then, that the gathering must take place indoors. But, as self-proclaimed powwow bum Raymond Munoza (who travels to nearly 100 such gatherings every year) says, modern-day powwows are often held in school gymnasiums or local community centers, where a small fee (often $1-3) must be charged to help cover rental expenses.
"Today," says Munoza over a warm slice of pan bread filled with beans and corn, "powwow offerings can include things like six-packs of soda and paper towels. There is no denying that it is 1997, but these meetings are still the way in which the [Indian] nations heal themselves." The term "powwow" actually originated from the Algonquin phrase "pauwau," which translates loosely into "healing gathering." "It is important that everyone come together whenever possible," continues Munoza. "When the powwows are held outside there is no charge to get in. Many of the families have already spent too much money traveling here."
In the center of the dance hall, a large American flag hangs from the ceiling, drawing attention to the smaller red-white-and-blue emblems that are worked into the more traditional fabrics of the dancers' clothes. Under the strained auspices of the Stars and Stripes, exquisitely dressed representatives from over 75 North American tribes weave across the floor, following two flag bearers in dreary military uniforms.
"I don't think people are aware of how patriotic Native Americans tend to be," comments Louise Laughing Bear, a 43-year-old Cree who is among the 7,000 Levi's-clad spectators here to celebrate their heritage and reconnect with their extended family. While she does not possess the same sense of allegiance to the flag that most of those standing seem to feel, she stays on her feet out of deference to the elders around her. "A lot of the older men are vets -- proud vets with horrendous war stories," she says. Her 14-year-old son approaches from the Indian Market clutching an "Original Gangsta" T-shirt and a "Native" sweat shirt, both made by RedGear ("Red-made, red-owned gear for the revolutionary generation").
As at most powwows, there are many warnings today against the evils of tobacco and alcohol. As Master of Ceremonies Bob Valdez of the New Mexico Laguna Pueblo Indians often points outs, neither are allowed in the building or on the surrounding grounds. "A huge part of American popular culture is based on the voluntary poisoning of our bodies," says Laughing Bear, "and the voluntary poisoning of our lands. Eventually, our minds become poisoned. The young must be given an alternative."
To many, the alternative is learning traditional dances, many of which -- the cloth dance, the grass dance, the jingle dress dance, and the fox-skin dance -- are in proud and colorful display today; to others, it is simply being among their own, or at least people of like hearts. While the crowd today is primarily Native American, there are numerous African-Americans (Oakland's Justine Craig says that she certainly has more in common with the Cheyenne than she does with me) and a number of Caucasians, none of whom are merely spectators. For example, the entire Harp family -- grandparents, parents, two small children, and three teen-agers -- chose to take the "Red Path" some time ago. After offering gifts and performing traditional dances at the Silver Star Powwow, they are welcomed into the Cherokee nation. Overwhelming acceptance is made clear as people from the many tribes grasp each family member's hand and then join in the dancing.
As the Seneca have been saying for hundreds of years, "All children of the Earth will be welcome at our council fires." Even though there are more disposable lighters to be found at Silver Star than ceremonial fires, the sentiment is the same. By nightfall, people are dancing without restraint, families are intermingling, and great smiles are in abundance. A sense of well-being permeates the sterile environs of the Henry J. Kaiser. As old women take toddlers by the hand and begin to share their stories, the first commandment according to Peter M. Figueroa of the Native American Co-Op is passed on: "Treat the Earth and all that dwell thereon with respect."
A powwow hosted by the American Indian Movement will be held at the College of Marin next weekend; for information call (510) 832-8761.
By Silke Tudor