I grew up in the middle of South Dakota, within hailing distance of two Indian reservations, but I started to regularly attend the spiritual, celebratory Native events called powwows only after a family member took a job working with children at a private school in Chamberlain. As a youngster, I knew boys and girls from the reservations, of course. I knew them, however, primarily because we attended the same schools. The public school environment in those days was decidedly non-Indian, and my contacts with Native friends happened in my world, not theirs.
I began to learn about the Native culture during my years as a newspaper reporter, when story assignments took me to the reservations. Early in my career, I realized I knew very little about a people who shared my time and my place, and I began to read and ask questions.
But it was when I began attending powwows and other events in the school that I really began to see Lakota and Dakota boys and girls in a setting that was more theirs than mine.
One foot in each
I recall an early powwow at St. Joseph’s Indian School when, as I watched the boys and girls carefully don regalia and fix braids and headbands, it struck me that these young people functioned in two worlds: the predominant non-Indian world around them every day and the world of their own culture, colorfully displayed in the powwows and taught in some of the classrooms.
I marveled at the seemingly easy way the boys and girls moved from one world to the other, slipping from the modern, non-Indian world to the traditional world of their culture as casually as they slipped off their high-topped basketball sneakers and pulled on their leather moccasins for a grand entry.
I’d see grinning boys sauntering along the edge of the arena in baggy shorts and NBA-star T-shirts, slapping hands and greeting companions as they went. A few minutes later, I’d watch those same boys, now in powwow regalia, intent on the steps and moves of their dance, moving through a whole other world.
Young girls whispering together as they moved past the vendor booths would appear in the dance circle, their flip-flops and blue jeans replaced by beaded leggings and whirling, fringed shawls.
Those grinning boys and whispering girls, when they donned their regalia, made a connection with the culture of a people whose time in this place reaches back beyond the written histories.
Learning from the past
I have known Lakota and Dakota women and men who as young people were discouraged from learning about their culture, told they would have to survive in a non-Indian world. Some of those adults told me they wished that they had learned more about their own culture, not to escape the modern world but to understand the language and customs of their own people so they could move more confidently in both worlds.
It makes sense that to really be grounded in the present and to move confidently into the future, one must have some awareness of the past. The lessons can take place on the powwow grounds and in the classrooms equally well.
My wife and I are grandparents to a young dancer, a second-grader who loves the modern world of basketball and gymnastics and swimming and leaping and laughing. Part Lakota, she is also a powwow dancer, has been for much of her young life.
When she dances, she loses herself in the drum beats and the words of the songs, spreading her shawl and twirling in the same spontaneous, joyful way she turns cartwheels on the grass in her shorts and sandals.
She’s young, but she is learning something of her Lakota culture, and she’s learning respect for the other dancers and respect for the elders. Those are important lessons, and I see many of the young dancers observing their elders and learning from them.
It’s too simple to say that a few songs and a handshake for the drum group will make life great for every child. But knowing a bit about one’s past and one’s culture and traditions can’t help but strengthen the foundation of a life.
This foundation is so valuable. That is why organizations, like Native Hope, who celebrate it, talk about it, and value it, can be so important to this connection.
I’m no expert on children and families, but I know this. When I watch Lakota and Dakota children embrace their culture—whether on the powwow grounds or in the classroom—I feel hope. And hope, always, is a good thing.
Together, we can help make a difference and transform the lives of future generations.