Teaching Culture, Pride Through Dance

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Pow Wow is a celebration of being Native people, said Michael Gates, of the Seneca Nation. “We now have the means to rent out large facilities, have full security and all the attributes of modern society. We are a first-class style of people that want our culture and traditions to be seen and shared by many.”

Gates is the husband of Michelle Shepard and the father of Gabriel, 5. The family resides in Hawaii but has recently decided to return to Gates’ traditional homelands in New York to raise their son.

“I moved to Hawaii about 28 years ago after losing many family and friends to drugs and alcohol,” he said. “I needed to just get away from it all.”

During those years, Gates contemplated the plight of his people and continually searched for answers to his own struggles with unwanted addictions.

“Over the years, I kept coming in contact with Native people that said I needed to get on the ‘red road,’” Gates said. “At an early age, my people exposed me to our cultural dances and traditions through annual celebrations and classes. This exposure rooted in me a sense of my Seneca ancestors. In retrospect, the red road gave me clarity and the focus to become sober.”

Pow wows have afforded Gates the opportunity to continue his path on the red road.

“I met my wife at a Kauai pow wow,” he said.

Shepard said she remembers the day well.

“He asked me to dance, and I was reluctant,” she said. “When I finally touched his hand, something special happened.”

Gates said he felt that the pow wow teaches Natives to be proud of their culture.

“The dancing and drumming is a way to reground ourselves,” he said. “When people come to the pow wow to see old friends and meet new ones, it’s wonderful. It is the biggest celebration in life that you can have, sharing special moments.”

One of those special moments occured recently at the 2006 Gathering of Nations pow wow in Albuquerque.

“We went to participate in the Smoke House Dance competition,” Gates said. “Gabe danced beside me for the first time during that competition.”

Gabriel described how he felt about pow wows. “I shake my

turtle rattle and it makes me feel good,” he said. “My mother made all my regalia. It is called regalia. I dance traditional.”

The family’s decision to leave Hawaii was based on making sure Gabriel learns to be proud of who he is and where he comes from.

“I began to feel a little less comfortable in Hawaii because I give cultural presentations to school-age children,” Gates said. “I teach the children to be proud of who they are and to know who their family is and who they are related to. At the pow wows, we are related to a lot of people. It makes me feel a bigger part of the picture, connected to life. We want Gabe to feel this.

“To see people of your own blood celebrating who they are is uplifting.”