Ever since I was a child, I wanted to become a traditional pow wow dancer.
However, not a single person remained in my family to teach me! How then could I learn my tribal dress style or dance steps? How would I be introduced to the circle, or provide gifts for the drummers and singers?
Even by New England Native family standards my family tree is complex. Further, many in my age group were affected by forced adoptions, boarding schools that often harbored terrible abuse, laws against land ownership and native religion, and/or sterilization programs. Some New England Natives decided to hide their racial identity and/or change their surnames several times throughout their lives to protect their families, just to survive.
Recognizing that all of these methods of cultural genocide were the cause of my not having a teacher or Native relative left me with a terrible, unrelenting desire to persevere and find relatives at all cost so that I might dance.
Throughout my thirties and forties, with my husband’s assistance and the luck of sufficient employment, I searched for family members. Long before the ‘net, which now makes research of New England Natives a little easier, we used up huge amounts of resources traveling to specialized libraries (losing our eyesight to microfiche documents), or to town halls, cemeteries, and to the doorways of utter strangers.
Ironically, the most productive method of research was a newspaper ad. When I discussed where to place it, a small-town ad salesperson said, “Well, everyone in town reads the Yard Sale section on Saturdays.”
So, I described the tiny nuggets I possessed about my family, told the bargain hunters that I sought only contact information, and included my home phone number. My efforts finally resulted in a call from a great-aunt, a much younger sister to a grandfather I never knew.
She said to me, “I read the Yard Sale ads four times before I realized: I am your pot of gold.”
Once we met (she lived less than twenty miles from me), my new-found great-aunt wrote down the names and birth places of our relatives in beautiful longhand while we sat at a heavy oak table in her tiny kitchen in a home above the Connecticut River. She showed me photos of my grandfather, great-grandparents and mother (who I had not yet met) sitting in precisely the same place only fifty years earlier. Over the course of the next twenty years – years that coincided with immense amounts of new and important historical research on New England Natives -- I obtained a general idea of my family and tribe before and after colonization and settlement as well as their contemporary lives.
When my husband became ill with cancer, I began to attend pow wows in order to help build back my spirit after the ups and downs of his treatments. I went to the places nearby my grandfather’s homes, and watched from beneath the shade of the trees. (Eventually, I confirmed that my grandfather danced on those very same grounds). Week after week I watched the dancers and listened to the drumming and singing and returned home restored.
One day, a fancy dancer left the circle and walked over to where I sat holding my son and quietly said to me, “You can dance, too, you know.” It was his permission that allowed me to stand eventually within the circle. Woliwon! (Thank you).
Not long after this, my husband lost his battle. A year after his passing, I began to assemble my regalia.
I’ve had over a decade now to learn. I recently selected southern cloth regalia with ribbon work and a half-shawl; I wear something that reflects the lives of all the mothers in my life, and of my husband’s life, such as their jewelry. My ribbon work is designed to demonstrate the migration of our people away from the dangers of the New England area during colonization. If I am at a pow wow with competitions, I will sometimes enter woman’s traditional, golden age.
I recently attended the first annual “Legends of the Mustang Pow Wow” in Biddeford, Maine, at Ever After Farm, a non-profit that helps restore the lives of mustangs who had once been on BLM land in the southwest and were adopted by this non-profit group. Compelled by the story, I braved the downeast Maine summer beach traffic and schemed how to avoid it. I researched the pow wow to learn who would be the organizer, the entertainment during break, the drums, and the emcee. After all, I was headed far out of my comfort zone, and was to be amongst wild mustangs!
My drive was uneventful along the Maine turnpike but not long after entering the secondary roads, I saw, set back from the road in front of a tiny house, a dozen pink, plastic flamingos propped on the front lawn.
“You’ve been flocked,” read a hand-lettered sign behind them.
Now, my current hometown is the birthplace of the “genius” who created these plastic, pink flamingos and the town next to ours mass markets them. Thus, the gathered pink flamingos in this front yard far from my starting point let me see the ridiculousness of all my scheming and planning and I began to be prepared for the paradox of the dance.
The organizer had roped a trustworthy horse near the entrance to the pow wow grounds, a huge, open expanse of freshly mowed field. Photographer Tony Austin and I stood and stared at the golden horse, so different from the typical farm animals of New England. A childlike design was painted over its heart. Then, like a being who had no need or reference point for home nor need or remembrance of his roots, the mustang rolled on his back, pawed the air, and abandoned the ground under his feet. We gasped at the sight.
The dancers greeted one another for grand entry and lined up by age. I comment to no one in particular that I actually feel like I am only ten years old, but I am nudged up to the front anyway.
Finally, It is grand entry! I try to focus on the steps of the woman in front of me; I follow her lead in pace and movement to help allow the entrance to be uniform and beautiful for the onlookers. Invariably, however, I notice the cameras and remember the agony I felt when I first saw a photograph of an ancestor. The photograph was in a text book and my relative was making baskets in a museum—to me, a horrible way to live one’s culture, on display in a museum.
Then, the veterans’ honoring song, a long lament to veterans of US wars. Again, I remember another photograph; this time, that of the long-lost grandfather who, lacking any other means to live, enlisted with three separate armies over the course of his military careers. He stands scowling down at the photographer and no weapon other than his eyes is needed to strike terror, even from this distance of time. He looks hungry, angry and full of rage.
But the dancers have formed a circle and the energy of the people circulates. Everyone is encouraging one another with tiny nods, sways, stepping in place. We look to the elders and experienced, local tribal people for certainty, even courage. I notice that these grounds are encircled by more flags and ribbons than I have ever seen on pow wow grounds. I notice the mustangs who were saved from certain slaughter and their protective barn in the distance, the huge arbor closer to me filled with drummers and singers, and a wider circle of vendors. It is beautiful to see from my place within the circle.
While listening to the veterans’ song, I remember that we have all risked our lives, left our comfort zones, and faced our memories. I breathe deeply and close my eyes.
Then, startled by the sound of numerous flags flapping in the wind, breathing out, I open my eyes. At that moment, I see my long, personal story fly away.
Then, I hear only the drum, see and feel only the light, the air.
My self-importance dissipates even more deeply, my victimhood and courage, perseverance and unresolved grief, disappears completely and everything—from the clothing I wear to the route I took to this particular pow wow—become little, small-minded, chattering thoughts of no importance whatsoever.
Finally, the dancers turn and walk together, placing each step prayerfully. Each step matches precisely with the beat of the drum--for always, there is the drum.
Finally, even the ground under each individual dancer disappears and we begin all together to dance off the ground … and into the sky.
And this is the paradox of my personal quest to dance: to do so never did require salvation first by all questions answered; it never required a storyline or permission. To dance did not really even require memory or money, effort or perseverance.
All along, the dance was within my heart.