Celebration of indigenous culture tops NIGA convention

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SAN DIEGO - Songs, dances, stories and seemingly endless amounts of gourmet food prepared by Native chefs-in-training were showcased at the Spirit of Sovereignty Foundation;s Celebration of Native Culture - the kickoff event for the National Indian Gaming Association's 17th annual ''Indian Gaming '08'' trade show and convention.

The celebration took place April 20 in the Presidential Ballroom of the five-star US Grant Hotel and featured performances from the Choctaw Nation Dancers of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; the Native American Dance Group of the United Tribes Technical College of Bismarck, N.D.; the Samala Singers of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians; the Yaw Tei Yi Tlingit dancers from Juneau, Alaska; the Acoma Intercultural Dancers of the Pueblo of Acoma; and the Southern California Intertribal Bird Singers.

The Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation hosted the event at the historic US Grant Hotel, an early 19th century landmark building purchased by the tribe in 2006. The setting was emblematic of an underlying theme repeated often during the NIGA convention: Buy Indian.

The menu prepared by culinary arts students at the Navajo Technical College in Crownpoint, N.M., included, among other things, sweet corn polenta topped with mushrooms and served in martini glasses, king crab legs, herb-roasted buffalo rib-eye, and poached shrimp with red chili cocktail sauce.

A War Dance, Fancy Shawl Dance, Blanket Dance, Buffalo Dance, Turkey Dance, Grass Dance, Chicken Dance, a dazzling Hoop Dance and the unique gestural dance of the Tlingits in their beautiful shawls or blankets decorated with totemic figures were among the performances. The different performances underlined the diversity of cultures and traditions among the indigenous peoples of the continent.

NIGA Chairman Ernie Stevens Jr. praised the performers in his closing remarks.

''This is what we need to do every day of our lives. This is what brings the energy back to our hearts and pulls us together,'' he said.

Stevens told a story about his grandmother, now 97 ''and very much full of energy.''

His grandmother was sent to residential school as a child.

''They tried to take her language and culture from her. She wasn't allowed to so they tied her arm, but today she is one of the great speakers of our language. My grandmother is a survivor. She survived during the Depression waiting tables or cleaning peoples' houses; she survived and she never let the government or anybody take what she had from her, and that's her culture and her tradition and her heart - and that's who we are and who we come from,'' Stevens said.

More that 500 tribal leaders, gaming industry vendors and guests attended NIGA's four-day annual meeting and trade show at the San Diego Convention Center April 20 - 23, as well as numerous artists, artisans and craftspeople.

On the following day, Olympic legend Billy Mills, Lakota, was the featured speaker at NIGA's leadership luncheon, an annual event to recognize Native groups and individuals that have made important contribution to Indian country through their leadership.

Mills, 70, told the 900 luncheon guests that change is the key to success in Indian country.

''As the world has changed around us, we have learned to adapt and to recognize that we have the power within ourselves to choose success,'' Mills said, pointing to positive changes in tribal political engagement, Indian entrepreneurship and, especially, education.

''Education has the power to heal our broken wings,'' Mills said, noting that his own Olympic career was made possible because of his athletic success at the University of Kansas, where he graduated with a degree in physical education.

''It is education that gives us the power ... to move past self-pity to realize our dreams. Education teaches us about our shared humanity, which is also the Olympic theme - global unity through diversity.''

Stevens described the Olympic athlete as ''a true hero; not just to Indian people, but to all Americans.'' Mills won the gold medal in the 10,000-meter run at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, a feat no other American has ever duplicated. Later, he was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame.

Tribes and individuals honored at the luncheon included:

* Jim Warne, Oglala Sioux, former NFL player and director of the Center for American Indian Rehabilitation at San Diego State University, for his work with Native youth through the Warrior Society Development program;

* The Gila River Indian Community for its support of ''Jam on the Rez,'' one of the special social events of NIGA's annual meeting and trade show; and

* Eight tribes and companies that provided major support for the NIGA Christmas Drive - the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation; the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians; the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians; Table Mountain Rancheria; the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut; the Seminole Tribe of Florida; International Game Technology; and Rocket Gaming Systems.