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Native Youth Alliance copes with inaugural pow wow adversity

WASHINGTON – For many American Indians, the Jan. 19 pow wow held in the nation’s capital by the American Indian Society of Washington, D.C. was a source of great pride. But for the founders of the Native Youth Alliance, a grassroots organization that strives to improve the health and well-being of young Natives, the event was a time of unwanted adversity.

The NYA has been holding a presidential inaugural pow wow and winter dance in Washington each year since 1997. The group has been around since 1993 and had been based in D.C. for many years. It is now based out of Ypsilanti, Mich. and has held about 30 traditional pow wows since its inception.

“We have always held it as a traditional gathering as a time to come together and pray for our Indian people,” said Shoshana Phillips, executive director of NYA. “This event has meant so much to us and many American Indians for so long, and we have tried to make it be a real, meaningful experience for many years.”

“We have to continue to battle for health care, sovereignty and justice for all Indian people. We can’t let this setback keep us from spreading goodwill.” – Nathan Phillips

This year, however, the NYA was not present at the longtime pow wow – by conscious decision after a series of negative events.

Phillips said the day after President Barack Obama won the election, the group received a call from a representative of AIS saying that some of its members had voted that AIS, not NYA, should be in charge of the inaugural pow wow.

Phillips said there were allegations that NYA was not capable of holding such a historic affair, and some worried whether she and her husband, Nathan Phillips, could deal with the finances of the complicated event. At one point, she said, a co-sponsorship deal seemed to be in the making, but it did not happen.

“I think AIS kind of got a little jealous of us,” Nathan said. “We’re just a little, small prayer organization – we’re not about trying to be something big, except for the kids.”

NYA officials chose to have no part of the pow wow. Their name was not on the contract with the hotel where the event was held and they were not in Washington for the inauguration.

Phillips, who is battling incurable bone marrow cancer, said she believes some AIS members may have believed her health complications would prevent NYA from pulling off the event. But she said her cancer is almost in remission and that not being able to coordinate the event actually made her feel worse.

“The pow wow circuit has always been a place of healing for me,” she said. “I think it is for a lot of people. … I certainly wish I would have had that opportunity in January.”

Nathan agrees that pow wows have played a big role in helping his family find strength. After Shoshana was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, he said his family was forced to live out of their car since they didn’t have health insurance. During the darkest times, they would travel from pow wow to pow wow to sustain themselves.

A history of healing

Nathan Phillips, the Omaha co-founder of the Native Youth Alliance, has for more than a dozen years held an annual ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to honor Native American veterans. The group has also regularly placed a tepee on the National Mall to raise awareness of Native issues. The efforts serve as a backdrop to another Phillips family program, called the Heritage of Healing Project, which aims to help Natives learn more about cancer recovery and prevention. The project is in the process of becoming

a nonprofit. “We see this as another way to spread knowledge and try to be helpful,” Phillips said. “It’s all about feeding the people knowledge and support.” Since Shoshana Phillips became diagnosed with bone marrow cancer, the project has taken on an even greater significance. One of its main goals is to assist the families of Native Americans who are stricken with the disease. “I went undiagnosed for five years,” she said. “We don’t want other Native families to have to deal with the aftereffects of similar circumstances.”

“The pow wows helped us keep the faith,” he said. The family currently receives government and disability assistance and medical attention at the University of Michigan Health System.

“It was hard not being [part of the inaugural pow wow] this year, but it was our protest.”

Nedra Darling, who was in charge of communications for the AIS event, said that efforts were made to include NYA in the celebration. The group was honored during the event and special recognition was made of the group in the pow wow’s official program.

According to the program, AIS and NYA had, for multiple years, been co-sponsoring an inaugural pow wow, but this year, “AIS chose to initiate and sponsor its own pow wow as a permanent part of the organization’s inaugural ball activities.”

The program also noted that NYA has not only coordinated and funded past inaugural pow wows, it has also held prayer vigils on the National Mall and hosted significant gatherings on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Phillips is appreciative of the acknowledgment, but said it did not heal the wounds.

“We feel much how we feel about the mascot issue: You can’t take something that doesn’t belong to you, and then say it’s to honor you,” she said. “It didn’t feel like that honor was coming from the heart.”

Part of the group’s hurt comes out of its longtime efforts to make the event spiritual and filled with pro-Indian activism. Nathan, who is of Omaha descent, said NYA was originally incorporated as a spiritual – not social – organization.

This year, NYA had plans to honor the Big Foot Memorial Riders, accompanied by the Porcupine Singers, one of the oldest drum groups in the nation. The riders are well-known for making a yearly tribute to Lakotas who died at the infamous Wounded Knee massacre.

“The most disappointing part of this for me is that we didn’t have the opportunity to get word out about all the people we wanted to honor,” he said. “We believe that this pow wow is a place of prayer. We were not able to have our way of prayer this year.”

NYA officials said they have been stewards of the event through difficult times, including during President George W. Bush’s two inaugurations when some Native folks were not supportive of the pow wow because they disagreed with his policies.

Nathan said the organization has soldiered on since the inaugural misgivings. “We have to continue to battle for health care, sovereignty and justice for all Indian people. We can’t let this setback keep us from spreading goodwill.”

NYA held a separate inaugural pow wow in D.C. May 23 as part of its May Dayz events. The event, he said, was held in the same spirit as past pow wows, and included prayers and activism. “It’s better late than never; and we will be holding more pow wows in Washington, D.C. in the years to come.”

The organization can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at (734)323-0762.