My mother would take my sisters, brother and me to Powwow events throughout Oregon when I was a kid. I will always remember the sweet taste of the fry bread, sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and honey. So the first thing I wanted to do as I entered the Powwow last weekend was to find a vendor who was selling bread. My stepdad Bill and boyfriend Johnny were with me, neither having been to a Powwow before. They thought I was crazy as I raced ahead of them to get the treat, than proceeded to tell them exactly how to eat it.
The Powwow was held in Cabazon, next door to Casino Morongo, organizer of the event. I went to take photographs of the traditional dancing, as part of my Senior Project this semester.
The word “Powwow” started off as a term referring to a shaman or teacher, a dream or vision, or gathering. It evolved to what it is today, but still preserves its rich heritage.
This ceremony began with the Grand Entry, and we all stood to pay honor and respect as flags and eagle staffs of the different tribes were brought in. Even the United States flag is honored, as a reminder of both Native American ancestors who fought against this country and those who are fighting for the country today. It also symbolizes that the Native Americans are now a part of the United States.
I continued to watch with awe, then nudged Johnny to join in on the dancing. As the dancers flowed into the circle, the rhythm of the drums began to fill my ears. There were several drum circles outside of the center arena, and the men of the group sang “vocables”—voice chants, instead of words. The vocables are songs that first evolved around the imitation of animals.
Soon, the entire circle was filled with dancers, all wearing native dress of bright colors and unique designs. The circle is a spiritual center, which represents the circle of life, and is only entered from the east. Dancers all move in the same direction as the sun. The use of a circle is illustrative of sacred beliefs. Among these beliefs is an inclusive understanding; there is no beginning and no end in a circle. The primary symbol of that unity is often represented in Dekenawida’s “Tree of Peace.” Dekenawida, who is referred to as the Peacemaker, chose the tree as a symbol and promise of peace between the five Iroquois nations. The roots of the tree are called the Great Roots of Peace, and they spread into four directions: north, south, east and west.
Later, when I arrived home, I looked through the hundreds of photographs and realized the looks I thought were “stern” were actually not, and although I cannot say for sure what the expressions mean, they seemed to reflect a deep perspective. The eyes of these elder Native Americans embody what community, life and being alive means to them as they re-enact the dance that reaches back like an umbilical cord through the generations of their forefathers. That is something not many of us can claim in the 21st century.
Leah Heagy, a senior art major, is photography editor of the Campus Times. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.