A woman with black-brown hair covering her shoulders like a shawl stood by
the dance floor with an expressionless face and when the spirit moved her,
made high, hollow bird calls that sounded as though they'd come in on wings
from two centuries ago. Another woman, sitting with the Tsinnajinnie
family, pulled a bite-sized piece from a puffy circle of frybread; trying
not to stare, passersby followed their noses to the vendor to wait in line
for one of the golden delicacies.
That's how it was on a cloudy January night when, bedecked in more color
and beadwork and feathers and fringes than a gathering in 21st-century
America has a right to expect, a crowd of a thousand filled the gymnasium
at Portland Community College's Sylvania campus for the Wacipi, or "they
dance" pow wow.
Smiling with her dark brown eyes, Noella Red Hawk, Seminole and Cherokee,
and one of the organizers of the 6th annual traditional pow wow, explained
the event is different from those held largely for competition.
"Wacipi is definitely a community event because we're not the sole money
makers. We give every nonprofit and every Native American organization a
chance to set up and have raffles at their tables. That's part of what
we're about: supporting the community and giving back to people," Red Hawk
"My husband is Lakota, and we go back all the time - sometimes even just
for the weekend - and we really appreciate how the Plains people have
established gatherings that honor elders and children and have giveaways.
"So that's what we try to do here - bring in as many Plains traditions as
we can and have a gathering that really does celebrate our community and
recognize the individuals who work to keep it strong."
Sociology instructor at the college and co-chair of the pow wow committee,
Dr. Rowan Wolf, agreed. Tinted glasses against the gym's glare of
fluorescent lights, Wolf had her fanny pack and earphone in place so she
could respond to calls for assistance as the day progressed. "We really
make an effort to have the space where births, deaths, graduations and
other significant events in peoples' lives can be shared. We also have a
community dinner, something that's become increasingly rare at pow wows. We
feed our elders, drummers, dancers, honored guests and then everyone else
until we run out of food."
The organizers don't forget their vendors, either. Amid men in Native Pride
ball caps, babies in strollers and young women so beautiful it breaks a
person's heart, crews shuttled plates of fried chicken, rolls, potato
salad, cookies, apples and canned soda to folks stationed at their booths.
"We have a good relationship with our vendors," Wolf said. "They know we
know they're here. It may seem like a small thing, taking them their
dinners, but as it's developed year after year, the pow wow has gained a
reputation that members of the Native community respect."
Taking care of our own: that's the message Wacipi offers to those who come.
It's a classic message as timeless as the tribes themselves, and one that
no amount of progress and modernity can deny. There's safety in the
message. There's value. There's the idea that people count. That people
After dinner, a color guard from the Northwest Indians Veterans Association
led the evening's grand entry to a room full of standing well-wishers,
their hats in hand. Master of ceremonies and member of the Grande Ronde and
Siletz tribes, Bob Tom felt the thrill as much as the littlest Grass dancer
standing by his grandmother. "That's why they call it the grand entry,"
said Tom. "It makes us Indian people feel grand and a little taller."
Then it was Noella Red Hawk's turn at the microphone. Holding a star quilt,
she traced the blanket's rounds and told of the people it had blessed. Then
she returned it to the family from which it had originally come, wrapping
the quilt around the shoulders of the Arnold Littleheads and tucking the
edges in under the gray hair of the couple. A long diagonal line cut across
the dance circle, and people moved slowly forward to shake the elders'
hands - to thank them for being part of Indian country.
Then there were the long braids wrapped in buckskin the color of honey,
bear claw necklaces, and strand after strand of chokers made from shell and
turquoise that are never far from any pow wow. Clearly those coming in from
a 200-mile radius around Portland for the festivities brought their best to
Ghost dancers from the Apache nation - students from Chemawa Indian School
in Salem - joined those representing the Southwest with a proud line of
maidens guarded by a fierce group of males who clapped white sticks
together to ward off interlopers.
A Grass dancer, so young and thin he looked as though he might blow away if
a big wind came, held his place in the doings. Fully able to conduct
himself with dignity, the boy posed so that the scarlet paint outlined in
white dots at the sides his face picked up the cherry red in the beaded
flowers loving hands had worked onto his costume.
Since the pow wow was held at the college, it wasn't exclusively about the
Indian community, of course. "At the Sylvania campus, 19 percent are
students of color: That's a low number since Oregon is predominantly a
white state," said Claire Oliveros, director of the college's multicultural
center and a pivotal figure in coordinating the pow wow since its
inception. "Still, the pow wow is an opportunity for us to recruit and
retain Native students as well as provide an opportunity for non-Natives to
learn about tribal culture."
That included Portland Community College's first black president, Dr.
Preston Pulliams. Pulliams was honored with a Pendleton blanket by Dr.
Brookey Gondara, Northern Cheyenne and newly-installed dean of Behavioral
Social Sciences. Wrapped in the buff-colored Pendleton with its orange,
brown and green arrows tracking their way down his arms, the president
said, "The college is about education and community, and that's what this
pow wow represents. We welcome your prayers and spirit, and we send ours to
Drum beats from 10 or more circles made it clear the people appreciated
Pulliams' remarks. And as the president rejoined his wife, dancers made
their way into the circle in a swirl of color and the singers raised their
voices in yet another song.
It was as though the whole community was in a giant clam shell together, a
shell so big it pushed far beyond the walls of the gym and the borders of
the college and the city out into the night sky, where even though the
clouds hid the stars, folks knew there was enough light for all and enough
magic to share.