By Brian Daffron -- Today correspondent
ANADARKO, Okla. - A historic event took place Oct. 20 when four indigenous delegates from the Altai region of Siberian Russia arrived in Tulsa to participate in the Library of Congress Open World program. Although other Russians have participated in this program, this is the first time that indigenous Russian people have come to visit specifically with American Indians.
Over the span of a week, these delegates - physics and mathematics teacher Mikhail Abakaev, cultural activist and organizer Zhanna An, cultural curriculum specialist Valentina Shalamaeva and choreographer and psychologist Irina Etenvoa - traveled through Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico to be a part of a cultural sharing and exchange with several tribes.
Along with a support staff consisting of facilitator Tamara Troyakova, translator Sergey Vladov, Carol Hiltner of Altai Mir University and Cherokee Nation member and event organizer Jonathan Hook, the people of Altai traveled by van to such places as the Redbird Smith Stomp Dance ceremonial grounds near Vian; attended a sweat lodge at White Eagle with Ponca and Otoe tribal members; saw a performance of pow wow dances by the Anadarko Public Schools' Indian Dance Troupe; and visited the Acoma and Tesuque pueblos of New Mexico.
''The greatest cultural diversity in Indian country is Oklahoma and New Mexico,'' said Hook. ''You have tribes that represent the Northeast, the Southeast and the Plains just in Oklahoma. Then you've got the Pueblos - a very distinct culture there. There's opportunity to see a lot of different Native cultures. See the Stomp Dance compared to the pow wow-style dance compared a Pueblo feast day situation, it's very different. It's an opportunity to try and see the diversity in Indian country.''
In Anadarko, the delegates reunited with three Kiowa tribal members that visited Altai this past summer as part of the International Youth Leadership Camp sponsored by Altai Mir University. These members included Erin Beaver, a recent graduate of Anadarko High School and currently attending University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma; Kandess Gonzales, a senior at Anadarko High School; and chaperone Dorla Tartsah.
Indian Country Today caught up with the Altai delegates at the Anadarko Public Schools' Indian Education Office. While visiting with the delegates through the translator, Vladov, the Altai delegates discussed similarities between their culture and American tribes.
''It turns out we have a lot of common features,'' Abakaev said. ''Nature is sacred. Everything is kind of spiritual. Spirits live in trees, live in the forest. We always believe that nature is superior to us. We worship the Nature. In our system of belief, the mountains, the water, everything has a Creator or the Spirit that we worship. The fire is sacred. Our festivities, when people come together and when they start cooking, first they have to feed the fire, give some food to the fire. Respect for the elderly is the most important thing in our ethics. We ask them for advice because we recognize that their wisdom is much greater than ours.''
Shalamaeva also added that the Native ceremony of cedar purification and the procedure of the Cherokee Stomp Dance share a similarity to their own ceremonial practices.
''Speaking of similarities, we've seen the cleansing ceremony, which in our case is almost exactly the same,'' she said about cedaring. ''Juniper is the sacred tree. What we've seen at your Stomping Dance ceremony, the procedure and everything is almost the same, except for the dance. Otherwise, our clans come together. Our families come together. They locate at a specific place. We cook together. We eat and we pray.''
Not only did the delegates talk about spirituality and their system of distinctive clan membership, but they also shared their environmental issues through the centuries by imperial and Soviet Russia, as well as their people's struggles with alcohol and drugs.
''We have a number of issues with our environment,'' said Shalamaeva. ''One of the things that impact our environment most is tourism. There is a huge influx of tourism into the Altai Republic now and a lot of negative consequences. They create national parks and preservation areas where they don't want any economic development in these areas. They want to be sure that nothing will affect the pristine part of their republic.''
Shalamaeva said that the building of an oil and gas pipeline across their republic will have a huge impact on their environment. She also said that current radioactive waste from Russia's space program is causing a higher rate of deadly medical problems, such as thyroid cancer.
When the Altai became a part of the Russian empire, many of the Altai men wore their hair long. When the Russians started forcing the Altai people to accept Christian and Russian culture, one of the things mentioned by delegate An was the cutting of hair along with the loss of other Altai practices.
''About 250 years ago, the Altai people joined Russia,'' said An. ''They did not have a way out, because it was the only way to survive. At that time, our men wore our hair long, just like Indians do. They started the forced Christianizing and baptizing of Altai people, and they cut off hair. That really hurt, because a braid or ponytail had special meaning for a man. Then there was a forced Russification. It was forbidden to speak the Native language. People would not be wearing national garments at all.
''During the Soviet period when all the people had to be brought to one standard - no matter who they are - a lot of things were lost completely. So they managed to preserve culture in remote villages only. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and once we became a separate jurisdiction within Russia, we started to actively revive the languages, traditions and culture. It's been like 15 years now. We believe that it's a new stage in our history, in our revival.''
Seeing the high school dancers at Anadarko inspired the Altai delegates, and many shared sentiments about the youth being the future for all indigenous people.
''We have to be very active,'' Shalamaeva said. ''We know from our own experience, because we've lost a lot. Our parents taught us now it's our turn to teach our young people. They should be more active. They should participate, be engaged in ceremonies and festivities, and especially make the most now when our elders are still alive, people who are the last carriers of this culture. The time is very precious. You cannot wait long.''